Protesters urge nationwide uprising
Protesters in Thailand forced the closure of several government ministries today and vowed to take control of state offices nationwide in a bid to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, escalating the biggest challenge she has faced since taking office.
Thousands of demonstrators fanned out to new targets in the capital, Bangkok, emboldened their takeover yesterday of the Finance Ministry, where crowds stormed its gates and then camped out overnight. It was closed today along with the Transport, Agriculture and Tourism Ministries.
Outside the Interior Ministry, thousands of protesters held a midday stand-off with riot police as they called on workers inside to leave.
Protesters say they want Ms Yingluck, who took office in 2011, to step down amid claims that her government is controlled by her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006 for alleged corruption.
On Sunday, more than 100,000 demonstrators took to Bangkok's streets, uniting against what they call the "Thaksin regime."
But the opposition-led movement has grown increasingly vague about its goals and demands. What started a month ago as a campaign to unseat Ms Yingluck has now been called a battle to uproot the Shinawatra network from Thai politics, with no clear explanation of what that means.
The occupation of the ministry offices has raised fears of violence and fears that Thailand is entering a new chapter of political instability. They also recall previous protests against Mr Thaksin and his allies in 2008, when protesters occupied and shut down the prime minister's office for three months.
Today, the main protest group appeared to have converted the Finance Ministry into its headquarters, and declared today a "rest day," as protesters erected tents in the parking lot.
"Tomorrow there will be a nationwide movement," protest spokesman Akanat Promphan told reporters inside the empty ministry. He said the aim is to paralyse government operations by seizing offices and state agencies so they cannot be "used as a mechanism for the Thaksin regime".
Separately today, the opposition Democrat Party, which is spearheading the protests, launched a parliamentary no-confidence debate against Ms Yingluck. The vote has no chance of unseating her as her ruling Pheu Thai party controls the House of Representatives.
Ms Yingluck called for calm and offered to negotiate with protest leaders.
"If we can talk, I believe the country will return to normal," she said.
Ms Yingluck has vowed not to use violence to stop the protests but expanded special security laws to cover the entire capital late yesterday. The Internal Security Act has been in place for three districts of Bangkok since August, when there were early signs of political unrest. It authorises officials to impose curfews, seal off roads, restrict access to buildings and ban the use of electronic devices in designated areas.
The anti-government campaign started last month after the ruling party tried to pass a controversial law that critics said was designed to absolve Mr Thaksin and others of politically related offences. The Senate rejected the Bill in a bid to end the protests, but the rallies have gained momentum.
Mr Thaksin's supporters and opponents have battled for power since he was toppled in 2006 following street protests accusing him of corruption and disrespect for the country's constitutional monarch. He has lived in self-imposed exile for the past five years to avoid a prison sentence on a corruption conviction.
The battle for power has sometimes led to bloodshed. About 90 people were killed in 2010 when Mr Thaksin's "Red Shirt" supporters occupied parts of central Bangkok for weeks before the government, led then by the current opposition, sent the military to crack down.