BANGKOK— The leader of Thailand's anti-government protests says he has met with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and refused to back down from his movement's demand that her administration step down in favor of an appointed council.
Suthep Thaugsuban told supporters late Sunday at one of the protest encampments in the capital, Bangkok, that the meeting was held under the auspices of the military, which says it is neutral in the conflict.
Thailand’s capital is experiencing its largest and most violent protests in more than three years. Following the reported deaths of four people, police fought back against demonstrators outside the prime minister's offices Sunday. Opposition elements continue to try to take control of government offices and TV stations in a bid to topple the prime minister’s administration.
Thai police fired water cannons and tear gas canisters at anti-government protesters attempting to breach Government House, home to the prime minister's offices.
The clashes come after days of repeated attempts to take control of government offices in an effort to bring down the administration of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
In a nationally broadcast address earlier Sunday, opposition leader Suthep demanded that TV stations no longer air news from the government.
He also insisted all government workers nationwide should stop working from Monday until the situation changes.
Suthep, a former deputy prime minister, is demanding a “people’s council” select a replacement national leader. He has ruled out negotiations with Yingluck or the possibility of new elections.
But numerous protesters questioned by VOA News outside the besieged Government House, including one woman identifying herself as Pasada, appear willing to abide by a more democratic process to choose a prime minister.
“We all want a new election," he said. "We can’t stand them [the Shinawatra family] any more. We have to bring them down.”
Situation on the ground
Several thousand unarmed soldiers have been called out Sunday to help police guard ministries and other government offices.
Besides seizing the grounds outside Government House, where several ministries are located, protesters also attempted to force their way inside major television stations.
At one location they were foiled: the heavily guarded headquarters of the Royal Thai Police. The gates there have been topped with razor wire while hundreds of police clad in riot gear stood at attention.
Some of the protesters moved to occupy a nearby intersection (Ratchadamri and Rama I roads) adjacent to the capital's major shopping centers, which closed for the day.
At the intersection, police colonel Chaiya Kongsab acknowledges his forces being overwhelmed.
The colonel says there are only 20 officers on the scene but a lot of protesters were coming, so they had to retreat in order to avoid a clash.
Leaders of the pro-government “red shirts” who had rallied inside a Bangkok stadium sent their supporters home Sunday morning after repeated rounds of gunfire erupted outside the arena.
Yingluck came to power in 2011 after her party won a landslide election. She is the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire who was ousted as prime minister in a 2006 military coup. He is in self-exile in Dubai, facing a two-year prison sentence for a fraud conviction should he return home.
The governing party’s proposal of an amnesty bill, which would have pardoned Thaksin and others accused of political violence in previous clashes was the catalyst for the latest anti-government street demonstrations. But even after the bill was withdrawn, the opposition Democrats pushed forward with a demand for the ouster of Yingluck and scrubbing her brother’s influence from Thai politics.