Police play pivotal role in Thai clashes

Opposition leaders are targeting the police in a bid to escalate their week-long protests before an expected timeout by Thursday for the king's birthday, a public holiday.

Vincent Thian/AP
An antigovernment protester falls as he is hit by water cannon by police in Bangkok, Thailand, Monday, Dec. 2, 2013. After a weekend of chaos in pockets of Bangkok, protesters vowed to push ahead with plans to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra by occupying her office compound along with other key government buildings.

Antigovernment protesters clashed with police in Bangkok, Thailand, on Monday, a day after protest leaders issued an ultimatum to Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign.

The violence has engulfed Thailand’s capital for more than a week and is the worst the Southeast Asian country has seen since protests in 2010 ended in a deadly crackdown by the Army. [Editor's note: The original article misstated the forces involved in the crackdown.]  

Rocks and glass bottles rained down on heavily fortified police lines outside the offices of the prime minister in Bangkok on Monday, where protesters have been trying to break through barriers to take control of the complex.

Demonstrators also clashed with security forces outside the metropolitan police bureau, where high velocity tear gas canisters and water cannons were used to disperse the crowd.

Police fired rubber bullets on Monday for the first time since protests began eight days ago in a sign they are escalating their response. Until now the police have received tacit praise from human rights groups for their relative restraint under sustained attack from demonstrators – a marked difference from 2010 when live rounds were fired into the crowd, killing more than 90 people.

At least three people have been confirmed killed in this week’s protests, in deaths attributed to battles between Ms. Yingluck’s supporters and opponents, rather than the police.
 
On Monday night, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former opposition lawmaker who resigned to lead the protests, called on demonstrators to “wage war on the police.” Mr. Suthep said that the police headquarters will be the focus of violence on Tuesday, which is the same day as the deadline he set for Yingluck to resign expires.

Analysts say the protesters appear to be trying to bait the police into a more heavy-handed response, which would escalate the crisis, provoking the use of live fire and increasing the chances of the leading party losing legitimacy.
 
“They want to force the government’s game. They are trying to draw blood,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

The king's birthday

The next 24 hours are a make-or-break situation for Yingluck as the police come under increasing pressure to react to mounting violence, Mr. Thitinan says. “The main option for the government is to stand their ground, exercise the utmost restraint, and let the clock run out.” 

It’s widely assumed that both sides want a resolution before Thursday, which is the 86th birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand’s long-reigning and highly respected monarch. It's a public holiday and protests are normally taboo on this day. The king has long been seen as the arbiter of Thailand’s bitterly divided politics, though his influence has waned in recent years.

If the opposition is not able to topple Yingluck's government before Thursday, momentum for the protests may dwindle.

A 'people's council'

Yingluck, Thailand’s first female prime minister, said on Monday that she was “open to every option” available to solve the crisis, including dissolving parliament and resigning. However, she said demands by Suthep to “hand power to the people” were unconstitutional. Suthep called Sunday for a "people's council" to be established to replace the current parliament and said a "people's government" should be formed to replace the Yingluck administration. He did not offer details of his proposals. 

Yingluck called for further talks with protesters who have been joined by the opposition Democrats, Thailand's oldest political party.

The Democrats have not won an election in more than two decades and have lost every national vote for the past 13 years to Thaksin Shinawatra or his allies. Suthep was a deputy prime minister in the Democrat-led government that lost power to Yingluck in a general election in 2011.
 
Suthep and Yingluck met on Sunday but were unable to come to an agreement. Instead Suthep called for a general strike.
 
"Stop working for the Thaksin regime and come out and protest," he said.

It was unclear how many people stayed away from work on Monday in response to Suthep’s demand. Several major universities closed on Monday citing student safety as the reason.

Police have not released official figures on this weekend’s protests. Estimates place the total at around 30,000 people over the weekend, with a smaller turnout Monday.

The government asked Bangkok’s 10 million residents to stay indoors between 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.
 
Mr. Thaksin, who won over poor rural and urban voters with populist policies, was convicted in absentia of graft in 2008. He dismisses the charges as politically motivated and remains in close touch with the government from his self-imposed exile, sometimes holding meetings with Yingluck's cabinet by webcam.

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