BANGKOK (AP) — Riot police managed to clear anti-government protesters from a major boulevard in the Thai capital in a small but brief victory as authorities try to reclaim areas that have been closed during a three-month push to unseat Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Hundreds of helmeted police with riot shields met no resistance Friday as they dismantled a sprawling protest camp in Bangkok’s historic quarter near the prime minister’s office compound, known as Government House. The office has been closed since December by protesters camped nearby.
Faced with the prospect of clashing with militant protesters coming from other sites to reclaim the area, police later withdrew, allowing demonstrators to occupy the street again. By evening, tents were re-erected in the area. Police also retreated from another protest venue after hundreds of demonstrators refused to leave.
Still, the police action was the first major pushback against the demonstrators in three months and was accomplished without violence, a key to holding the high moral ground. In past clashes with police, protesters highlighted injuries in their ranks for propaganda purposes, even though both sides have used force.
Police moved in as the total number of full-time protesters dwindled sharply to about 5,000 from more than 150,000 late last year, according to police estimates.
“The prime minister asked us to deal with the protesters gently,” said Chalerm Yubumrung, the head of the government’s special command center to oversee security. He called Friday’s operation “an example” of what authorities plan to do at other protest sites.
“We are telling the protesters to go home. If they do not listen, we will push more,” he told reporters at a news conference held inside Government House for the first time since December.
The protesters are demanding that Yingluck’s administration be replaced by a non-elected “people’s council,” which would implement reforms they say are needed to end corruption and money politics. They have battled police on several occasions, and have been targeted in several attacks for which no one has been apprehended.
At least 10 people have been killed and scores injured during Thailand’s biggest anti-government street rallies in years. The only injury Friday morning was a local newspaper photographer whose leg was hurt by a small firecracker device. It wasn’t known who threw the object, but the protesters have used so-called “pingpong” bombs filled with explosives in previous confrontations.
The U.S. State Department renewed its travel alert for Thailand, particularly Bangkok, warning Americans of the potential risks and regular incidents of violence during political demonstrations.
As police entered the protest zone near Government House, they called for cooperation through a megaphone: “It is necessary for the police to clear this area. … For your own safety please strictly follow police instructions.”
There was no resistance from protesters, who had abandoned the site and regrouped elsewhere before police arrived.
The riot squads tore down a sandbagged barrier that had closed a major boulevard to traffic. They dismantled tents where the protests had camped out overnight and searched for weapons. Authorities said they confiscated slingshots, firecrackers and a variety of materials they said could be used for explosives, including a small bag of urea, metal objects and other items.
A more tense encounter occurred in a northern suburb of Bangkok, where protesters have set up a stage that blocks the entrance to a complex of government buildings, which has forced many offices to relocate. Hundreds of police faced off with protesters who refused to budge, and police then retreated.
Demonstrators afterward gathered outside the gate of the city police headquarters to protest the action.
Until now, police have avoided dispersing demonstrators for fear of unleashing greater violence.
Thailand has been wracked by political unrest since 2006 when Yingluck’s brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted by a military coup after being accused of corruption and abuse of power. Since then, his supporters and opponents have vied for power, sometimes violently.
The conflict pits the Bangkok-based middle- and upper-class and southerners who disdain Yingluck against the poor, rural majority who support her and have benefited from populist policies including virtually free health care.
In a bid to defuse the crisis, Yingluck dissolved Parliament in December and became the caretaker prime minister until a new premier is named. Elections earlier this month were boycotted by the main opposition Democrat Party, which backs the protesters. The Democrats have since petitioned a court to annul the elections, launching a legal challenge bound to prolong the country’s political paralysis.