Thai anti-government protesters clash with police
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Thai anti-government protesters clash with police

BANGKOK (AP) — Protesters calling for Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step down rallied in the heart of Bangkok on Saturday, clashing with police in the first major demonstration against the government since it came to power last year.

Although the rally site itself was peaceful, protesters on a nearby street tried and failed to break through a concrete police barricade, at one point ramming a truck into it. Both demonstrators and riot police lobbed tear gas canisters at each other.

Police spokesman Maj. Gen. Piya Utayo said five officers were injured in the skirmishes, two of them seriously. He said 130 demonstrators were detained, some of them carrying knives and bullets.

The demonstration underscores the simmering political divisions that have split the country since the army toppled Yingluck’s brother Thaksin Shinawatra in a 2006 military coup, a move that triggered years of instability.

Saturday’s rally was organized by a royalist group calling itself “Pitak Siam” — or “Protect Thailand.” Led by retired army Gen. Boonlert Kaewprasit, the group accuses Yingluck’s administration of corruption, ignoring insults to the revered monarchy and being a puppet of Thaksin.

Yingluck has taken the threats seriously, and accused demonstrators of seeking to overthrow her government, which came to power in mid-2011 after winning a landslide election. Earlier in the week, Yingluck ordered nearly 17,000 police deployed ahead of Saturday’s rally and invoked a special security law, citing concerns it could turn violent.

Protest organizers had spoken of mobilizing hundreds of thousands of supporters. But by Saturday afternoon, only around 10,000 had turned up.

Speaking from the rally’s central stage on Saturday, Boonlert vowed the demonstration would remain peaceful. But he said: “I promise that Pitak Siam will succeed in driving this government out.”

He then led the crowd in a chant: “Yingluck, get out! Yingluck, get out!”

The rally was held at Bangkok’s Royal Plaza, a public space near Parliament that has been used by protesters in the past.

Police allowed protesters into the site, and two roads leading to it were open. But in an effort to control access, they blocked roads on another street leading to Royal Plaza.

Protesters tried to break through the barriers in the morning, cutting through rings of barbed wire. They clashed with police in the area at least twice on Saturday.

While Pitak Siam is a newcomer to Thailand’s protest scene, it is linked to the well-known “Yellow Shirt” protesters, whose rallies led to Thaksin’s overthrow. The same movement later toppled a Thaksin-allied elected government after occupying and shutting down Bangkok’s two airports for a week in 2008.

Thaksin remains an intensively divisive figure in Thai politics. The Yellow Shirts and their allies say he is corrupt and accuse him of seeking to undermine the popular constitutional monarch — charges Thaksin denies.

On Thursday, Yingluck’s Cabinet invoked an Internal Security Act in three Bangkok districts around the protest site. The act allows authorities to close roads, impose curfews and ban use of electronic devices in designated areas.

Since then, police have closed roads around Yingluck’s office and Government House, and boosted security at the homes of senior officials, including the prime minister.

In a nationally televised address explaining the move, Yingluck had said protest leaders “seek to overthrow an elected government and democratic rule … and there is evidence that violence may be used to achieve those ends.”

Analysts said they did not view the protest as an immediate threat to Yingluck’s government, but were watching it closely.

“Anytime you have tens of thousands of people converging, assembling in a central Bangkok location, it becomes a government stability concern,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

But he added: “I think it’s a serious concern more than a serious threat.”

Boonlert, the protest group’s leader, is best known for his role as president of the Thailand Boxing Association. His name is unfamiliar in the anti-Thaksin protest movement, but his message appears to have resonated with Yellow Shirt supporters who have laid low in recent years after Yingluck’s party won the last elections.

Thailand has been gripped by bouts of political instability since 2006, with Thaksin’s supporters and opponents taking turns to spar over who has the right to rule the country.

The most violent episode came in 2010, when Thaksin’s “Red Shirt” supporters led a two-month occupation of central Bangkok to demand the resignation of an anti-Thaksin government. The protests sparked a military crackdown that left at least 91 people dead and more than 1,700 injured.

Thaksin has lived in self-imposed exile since 2008, when he jumped bail to evade a corruption conviction and two-year jail term. He retains huge popularity among the rural poor, who want to see him pardoned and returned to power. But he is reviled by the urban elite and educated middle class, who see him as authoritarian and a threat to the monarchy.

Buoyed by Thaksin’s political machine, Yingluck was elected by a landslide victory in August 2011. She initially was criticized for her lack of political experience — she was an executive in Shinawatra family businesses — but has won praise for leading the country through one of its longest peaceful periods in recent years.