Thai riot police retake protest sites in Bangkok

Police cut down tents and tarps with knives at an anti-government protest site near Government House in Bangkok on February 14, 2014. Thousands of riot police were deployed in the Thai capital on February 14 to clear areas occupied for weeks by opposition protesters, reclaiming the besieged government headquarters with no resistance.

BANGKOK - 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.

Anti-government protesters have been disrupting life in the Thai capital since November, trying to oust Yingluck. They view her as a proxy for her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a self-exiled former premier who clashed with the establishment before he was overthrown by the army in a 2006 coup.

"Our police are ready to reclaim space and will try to avoid violence," National Security Council Chief Paradorn Pattanathabutr told Reuters.

Paradorn said 5,000 police had been assigned to the operation, which was targeting sites around the government district rather than intersections in the shopping and business centres that have been the focus of the biggest rallies.

The protests have pitted the Bangkok-based middle class and royalist establishment against the mostly poorer, rural supporters of the Shinawatras from the north and northeast.

Police had until now largely avoided confronting the protesters, although 11 people have been killed and hundreds hurt in sporadic flare-ups. The past week has been quiet, with numbers dwindling at protest sites dotted around Bangkok.

A Reuters witness said there was no violence as at least 1,000 police cleared protesters from a site stretching from 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 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 hard core 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 that has been Yingluck's temporary headquarters since the crisis began.

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.

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