By THANYARAT DOKSONE, Associated Press | November 30, 2013 | Updated: December 1, 2013 9:45am
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BANGKOK (AP) — The leader of Thailand’s anti-government protests said late Sunday he has had a face-to-face talk with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, but that he refused to back down from his movement’s demand that her administration step down in favor of an appointed council.
Suthep Thaugsuban said in a speech to supporters at one of the protest encampments that the meeting with was held under the auspices of the military, which says it is neutral in the conflict.
Suthep insisted to his supporters that the talk did not constitute negotiations. The protesters had dubbed Sunday “victory day” but failed to attain their main stated goal of taking over the prime minister’s offices, despite engaging in pitched street battles.
Suthep told followers it would take another two days for their goal to be reached. He earlier called for all public servants to take Monday off. Last week protesters tried to disrupt government activities by besieging and occupying parts of several ministries and other government offices.
There was no immediate announcement from the government about the claimed talks. Yingluck did not appear in public Sunday, and her aides said she was in a safe place.
Suthep’s defiant tone elicited loud cheers from his followers. In an earlier speech Sunday — apparently before the meeting — he was unable to cite any new accomplishments, instead mostly restating his movement’s complaints and demands.
Police throughout the day fought off mobs of rock-throwing protesters who tried to battle their way into the government’s heavily-fortified headquarters and other offices. Mobs also besieged several television stations, demanding they broadcast the protesters’ views and not the government’s. Several of the capital’s biggest and glitziest shopping malls closed in the heart of the city due to the unrest.
With skirmishes around Yingluck’s office at Government House continuing as darkness fell, the government advised Bangkok residents to stay indoors overnight for their safety.
The protests have renewed fears of prolonged instability in one of Southeast Asia’s biggest economies. Sunday marked the first time police have used force since demonstrations began in earnest a week ago — a risky strategy that many fear could trigger more bloodshed.
At least three people have been killed and 103 injured in skirmishes so far, according to police and the state’s emergency medical services. The deaths occurred at a Bangkok stadium where shooting was heard Sunday for the second day and the body of one protester shot in the chest lay face-up on the ground. The death toll was revised from four after the emergency services office said there had been a mix-up in information from hospitals.
Yingluck spent the morning in meetings at a Bangkok police complex but evacuated to an undisclosed location and canceled an interview with reporters after more than a hundred protesters attempted to break into the compound, according to her secretary, Wim Rungwattanajinda.
Political instability has plagued Thailand since the military ousted Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, in a 2006 coup. Two years later, anti-Thaksin demonstrators occupied Bangkok’s two airports for a week after taking over the prime minister’s office for three months, and in 2010 pro-Thaksin protesters occupied downtown Bangkok for weeks in a standoff that ended with parts of the city in flames and more than 90 dead.
Any further deterioration is likely to scare away investors as well as tourists who come to Thailand by the millions and contribute 10 percent to the $602 billion economy, Southeast Asia’s second largest after Indonesia. It is also likely to undermine Thailand’s democracy, which had built up in fits and starts interrupted by coups.
The latest unrest began last month after an ill-advised bid by Yingluck’s ruling Pheu Thai party to push an amnesty law through Parliament that would have allowed the return of her self-exiled brother, who was overthrown after being accused of corruption and abuse of power. Thaksin lives in Dubai to avoid a two-year jail term for a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated.
The bill failed to pass the upper house of parliament, emboldening protesters, who drew 100,000 people to a mass rally in Bangkok one week ago. Then, over the past week, they seized the Finance Ministry, camped at a sprawling government office complex, cut power to the national police headquarters and briefly broken into the army headquarters compound to urge the military to support them.
The demonstrators, who accuse Yingluck of being her brother’s puppet, are a minority who mainly support the opposition Democrat Party. They want to replace Yingluck’s popularly elected government with an unelected “people’s council,” but they have been vague about what that means.
Some of Sunday’s most dramatic scenes played out in front of Government House, where more than 1,000 protesters wearing bandanas and plastic bags over their heads hurled stones, bottles and sticks at police, who fought back with rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas over barricades that separated them. Protesters clipped away at coils of barbed wire that surrounded the compound, pushed over barriers and at one point tried to drag one way with a green rope tied to a truck.
One Associated Press cameraman filming the mayhem was hit in the hand by a rock and the leg by a rubber bullet.
A few kilometers (miles) away, police drove back another crowd of protesters at the city’s police headquarters.
“We’re all brothers and sisters,” police shouted through a loudspeaker before firing tear gas. “Please don’t try to come in!”
Until this weekend, the demonstrations have largely been peaceful. But tensions rose Saturday night after rival groups clashed in a northeastern Bangkok neighborhood where a large pro-government rally was being held in a stadium. Dozens were wounded, and unidentified gunmen were also responsible for the three shooting deaths.
Pro-government supporters left the stadium Sunday, but gunshots were fired again. It was not clear who was responsible or targeted, said police Col. Narongrit Promsawat.
Yingluck’s government, weary of past bloodshed, has gone to painstaking lengths to avoid using force. But they appeared to have drawn a red line at Government House, and on Sunday fought back for the first time, both there and at the headquarters of Bangkok city police.
Army commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha — who said last week the army would not take sides — urged the police not to use force and also called on protesters to avert violence, according to Lt. Col. Winthai Suvaree, an army spokesman.
Most of the protesters are middle-class Bangkok residents who have been part of the anti-Thaksin movement for several years and people brought in from the Democrat Party strongholds in the southern provinces.
Because Yingluck’s party has overwhelming electoral support from the country’s rural majority, which benefited from Thaksin’s populist programs, the protesters want to change the country’s political system to a less democratic one where the educated and well-connected would have a greater say than directly elected lawmakers.
Associated Press writers Todd Pitman, Grant Peck, Jocelyn Gecker, Papitchaya Boonngok, Yves Dam Van, and Raul Gallego Abellan contributed to this report.