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Treading softly, Thai riot police move to reclaim protest sites

Source: Reuters - Fri, 14 Feb 2014 06:54 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Police say they will try to avoid violence; protesters vow to resist

* Sites around government district in central Bangkok to be cleared

* Larger sites not among operation by thousands of police

* Disputed election latest step in eight years of turmoil (Updates with comment from from police chief, analyst)

By Orathai Sriring and Amy Sawitta Lefevre

BANGKOK, Feb 14 (Reuters) - Thousands of Thai riot police were deployed on Friday to seize back protest sites around government buildings in Bangkok that have been occupied for months by demonstrators seeking to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

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.

"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.

"Our police are ready to reclaim space and will try to avoid violence," he said.

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.

NUMBERS DWINDLING

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."

There has been no move against the largest sites at intersections in the main shopping and business districts.

"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.

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.

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 police massing near another protest site by a government complex in northern Bangkok.

Police later pulled back from the area, however, leaving protesters in place around the complex.

EIGHT YEARS OF TURMOIL

An election on Feb. 2 failed to break the deadlock in Thailand, a country popular with tourists and investors but blighted by eight years of polarisation 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.

Thailand's army chief appealed for calm on Thursday ahead of a long holiday weekend, while reiterating that the military, which has staged or attempted 18 coups since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, was resolved to stay neutral.

Protest leaders had urged supporters to come out in force over the weekend, and were planning "Love Thailand and Break-up with the Thaksin Regime" events in Bangkok on Friday, Valentine's Day, which coincides with a Buddhist holiday. (Additional reporting by Damir Sagolj and Andrew R.C. Marshall; Writing by Alex Richardson; Editing by Alan Raybould and Paul Tait)

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