News / Asia

Thai Police Back Down After Move to Disperse Protests

Anti-government protesters gesture from a barricade where they confront riot policemen near the Government House in central Bangkok, Feb. 14, 2014.
Anti-government protesters gesture from a barricade where they confront riot policemen near the Government House in central Bangkok, Feb. 14, 2014.
Ron Corben
Thai police moved to disperse anti-government protesters occupying key areas of Bangkok only to retreat amid fears of potential violence. Anti-government protesters are likely to be joined by hundreds of rice farmers complaining about delayed payments in a rice price support scheme.
Some 5,000 police with shields at the ready began their operation early Friday to disperse anti-government protesters occupying areas of Bangkok since late last year in a bid to force Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign.
The anti-government People's Democratic Reform Council campaign stepped up its activities in mid-January by blocking key intersections and occupying key government buildings.
In response, Yingluck's administration imposed a 60-day state of emergency across the city and nearby provinces.
Friday's police operation came as Thailand marked a Buddhist holiday, leaving many protest sites with few on hand as people visited temples. 
There were no serious outbreaks of violence, but police retreated from a government administrative center about 25 kilometers from central Bangkok when protesters led by a Buddhist monk blocked their path.
Since protests began last year, at least 10 people have died and hundreds injured.
Panitan Wattanaygorn, a political scientist and former government spokesman, said a decision to move against the sites appeared designed to take advantage of fewer numbers and came ahead of a civil court decision on the validity of the emergency decree due on Wednesday.
"The government and the police are concerned if the [civil] court give a verdict to ban the use of the emergency decree, the operations would be more difficult. But now they have retreated they are afraid of the political consequences as these protesters may regroup and try to challenge [the police]," said Panitan.
Thailand's political landscape remains highly uncertain, despite national polls held on February 2. The polls were boycotted by the opposition and face legal challenges.
Yingluck's Pheu Thai Party-led government has faced on-going protests since her government sought to pass an amnesty bill last year analysts say was aimed to clear her older brother, former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, of corruption charges.
The protests escalated into calls for the government to resign.
Added pressure has come from hundreds of rice farmers rallying in Bangkok, angered over long delays in payment over a controversial rice pledging scheme.
Speaking to Thai media, one woman wept as she pleaded for the government to find outstanding funds, asking how she was going to feed her children, begging for sympathy and saying that the government needed to recognize their problem.
The populist rice price program faces widespread allegations of corruption, and Yingluck is also under investigation in connection with the more than $19 billion in losses run up by the program so far.
Anti-government protesters launched a campaign to assist the farmers in raising funds to support legal action the farmers will take against the government.
PDRC spokesman Akanat Promphan said political pressures are still on the prime minister.    
"I question her perseverance in this scheme. I think she's still human -- if we keep on the pressure in the end its only a matter of time before she decides to resign -- but you have to keep on the pressure," said Akanat.
Yingluck said that any delays are legal issues and called for farmers to have patience with the government
Besides calling for the prime minister and Cabinet to resign, the PDRC is seeking political reforms before fresh elections are held. Political analysts say talks to end the deadlock have been under way.
On Friday, Yingluck promised farmers they could expect outstanding payments next week.

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