BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai riot police reclaimed a main Bangkok thoroughfare on Friday that has been occupied for months by demonstrators seeking to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and said they would move to seize other protest sites in coming days.
There were no reports of clashes in a “softly softly” operation that appeared designed to test the strength of the dwindling bands of anti-government protesters who have been disrupting life in the Thai capital since November.
Police pulled back from confrontation with protesters after a stand-off at another site in the north of the capital, and made no move against the largest sites at intersections in the city’s main shopping and business districts.
“Our strategy is to do this slowly, and work inwards from areas outside of central Bangkok towards the main protest sites,” said national police chief Adul Saengsingkaew.
“We are not dispersing the protesters or using force, we are using negotiations as our main tactic.”
Protesters want to oust Yingluck, viewing her as a proxy for her elder brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a self-exiled former prime minister who clashed with the establishment before he was overthrown by the army in 2006.
The conflict has broadly pitted the Bangkok-based middle class and royalist establishment against the mostly poorer, rural supporters of the Shinawatras in the north and northeast.
National Security Council Chief Paradorn Pattanathabutr told Reuters that 5,000 police had been deployed to reclaim protest sites at Government House, the Interior Ministry, the Energy Ministry and a government administration complex.
Haunted by memories of a bloody 2010 crackdown by a previous administration that killed dozens of pro-Thaksin “red shirt” activists and anxious to avoid giving the coup-prone military a reason to step in, the government has largely avoided confrontation.
Despite that cautious approach, which has at times seen protesters allowed to take over government offices unopposed, 11 people have been killed and hundreds hurt in sporadic flare-ups. The past week has been quiet, with most protest sites dotted around Bangkok sparsely attended during the day.
“The number of protesters has gone down significantly, so that’s one factor,” said police chief Adul. “It makes our job to reclaim the protest areas easier.”
A Reuters witness said there was no violence as at least 1,000 police cleared protesters from a site stretching from the Royal Plaza to the United Nations headquarters. A few of the officers were armed but most carried just batons and shields.
Some protesters hurled abuse but otherwise police met no resistance in a historic area of the capital that includes the prime minister’s offices at Government House and the Metropolitan Police headquarters, scenes of violent clashes in November and December.
Police later said they had recovered firearms, ammunition and drugs from the site, where they removed barriers and tents set up by the protesters.
The area is not one of the largest sites occupied by the main protest group, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), and in recent weeks it has been held by a small core of protesters from an allied movement.
Bluesky TV, the PDRC television channel that broadcasts the fiery speeches of the movement’s leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, showed pictures of festive crowds gathered in the evening in front of a stage at the Asoke intersection in central Bangkok.
Riot police had earlier massed at a protest site near a government complex in north Bangkok, but withdrew after a tense face-off with protesters sitting in the road, television pictures showed. There was no attempt to move against protesters at the interior or energy ministries.
“This isn’t the first time the government and police have tested the waters. They are going for smaller groups; you could call them softer targets,” said Boonyakiat Karavekphan, a political analyst at Ramkamhaeng University in Bangkok.
An election on February 2 failed to break the deadlock in Thailand, a country popular with tourists and investors but blighted by eight years of polarization and turmoil.
Protesters blocked voting in a fifth of constituencies, a result that left parliament without a quorum to approve a new government and Yingluck’s Puea Thai Party limping on as the main party in a caretaker administration with limited powers.
The deadlock has raised concerns about the long-term impact on an already weakening economy, with the caretaker government unable to approve spending on new infrastructure projects that would have supported growth.
The protesters are demanding that Yingluck resigns and makes way for an appointed “people’s council” to overhaul a political system they say has been taken hostage by Thaksin, a telecoms billionaire who shook up politics in the early 2000s with populist policies that harnessed the support of the populous but previously neglected north and northeast.
Protest leaders had urged supporters to come out in force over the weekend, and held “Love Thailand and Break-up with the Thaksin Regime” events in Bangkok on Friday, Valentine’s Day, which coincided with a Buddhist public holiday.
Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak, Damir Sagolj and Andrew R.C. Marshall; Writing by Alex Richardson; Editing by Robert Birsel