Thai protesters seek military support to oust embattled PM

The kingdom has experienced 18 successful or attempted military coups since the 1930s

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has no plans to hold early elections, she told the BBC, amid signs that opposition protesters are calling for a military coup.
Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Protesters in Thailand stormed the grounds of the national army headquarters Friday, asking the military to support their increasingly tense campaign to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

In a letter addressed to the army chief, the protesters stopped short of calling for a coup but urged military leaders to "take a stand" in Thailand's spiraling political crisis.

The crowd of 1,200 people stayed on the sprawling lawn of the Royal Thai Army compound for two hours and handed security forces roses before filing out peacefully. It was a bold act, heavy with symbolism in a country that has experienced 18 successful or attempted military coups since the 1930s.

The most recent ouster was in 2006, when the military ended the rule of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother. Thaksin is living overseas to avoid a corruption conviction but is still central to Thailand's political conflict.

Asked if she planned to call early elections, Yingluck told the BBC on Friday that she didn't think snap polls would solve the country's problems.

"You have to ask (if) the protesters (would be) satisfied or not," she said. Instead she urged talks with opposition leaders. But rally leader Suthep Thaugsuban on Thursday resisted calls for negotiations.

Al Jazeera's Florence Looi, reporting from Bangkok on Friday, said Yingluck's appeals for dialogue would probably continue to be rejected by the yellow-shirted protesters.

"Her next best option is to wait it out, and that may already be working for her," Looi said.

The yellow-shirt movement staunchly supports the country's monarchy, and some analysts believe that protests will die down around the king's birthday next week.

Looi reported the Chinese ambassador to Thailand had offered to mediate between the administration and opposition leaders.

"But it is doubtful that protesters will sit down to negotiate," she said. "They want the government out." 

Sean Boonpracong, Thailand's national security adviser, told Al Jazeera the government wanted to arrest the organizers of the demonstrations but not the masses of people who were taking part.

Suthep said protesters remained "very upbeat."

"If we demolish the Thaksin regime ... we will set up a people's council, which will come from people from every sector," he said.

"Then we will let the people's council pick good people to be the prime minister and ministers."

For the past week, thousands of anti-government protesters have marched in Bangkok and across the rest of the nation in a bid to unseat Yingluck, whom they accuse of serving as a proxy for her billionaire brother. Thaksin is adored by much of the country's rural poor and despised by much of the educated elite and middle class, who accuse him and his government of widespread corruption and other offenses.

Leaders of the protests say their goal is not just to force Yingluck out of office but also to rid the country of Thaksin's influence in politics.

The demonstrations have raised fears of new political turmoil and instability in Thailand and pose the biggest threat to Yingluck's administration since she came to power in 2011.

Protesters gathered at several spots on Friday, with one rally outside the headquarters of Yingluck's ruling Pheu Thai party. Protest leaders delivered passionate speeches through truck-mounted speaker systems amid the deafening screech of whistles, reported Al Jazeera Online's Rob Kennedy. Some 300 riot police guarded the headquarters' entrance to prevent more demonstrators from entering.

A crowd of more than 1,000 people marched through central Bangkok to the U.S. Embassy. Opposition lawmaker Korn Chatikavanij, a former finance minister, delivered a letter to an official there denouncing Yingluck's leadership as illegitimate, in response to a statement from Washington that expressed concern about the protests.

Despite heavy security in several protest areas, the army headquarters was apparently not expecting the protesters, who had little trouble getting past the locked iron gate.

"From what I understand, there was a padlock on the gate. They broke it and let themselves in," army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said.

The compound is next to the United Nations' Asia-Pacific headquarters in Bangkok.

Yingluck has been reluctant to use force against the protesters for fear of escalating the crisis and sparking bloodshed.

Security forces have done little to stop demonstrators, who have spent the week seizing government buildings, camping out at several of them and asking civil servants to join the protests in an effort to force a government shutdown.

Crowd sizes peaked Sunday at over 100,000 and have dwindled in recent days to tens of thousands, but organizers have kept each day dramatic by targeting new and different seats of power.

Protesters have occupied the Finance Ministry since Monday, and others have remained holed up since Wednesday at a sprawling government complex that houses the Department of Special Investigations, the country's equivalent of the FBI. On Thursday the demonstrators cut power at Bangkok's police headquarters and asked police to join their side.

Yingluck has publicly pleaded for the protesters to stop and asked leaders of the movement to negotiate.

"Please call off the protests for the country's peace," Yingluck said Thursday. "I'm begging you."

But Suthep and other protest leaders have called for bigger crowds to join the campaign over the weekend.

"Come join us, as many as you can. Within two days, we will achieve victory," Satit Wongnongtoey, a protest leader, told crowds gathered at nightfall at Democracy Monument in Bangkok. "We've come this far. We will not go back."

Thaksin, who lives in Dubai to avoid serving time for a corruption conviction that he says was politically motivated, is a highly polarizing figure in Thailand. Before Thaksin was ousted — for alleged corruption, abuse of power and insulting the nation's revered king — he won over Thailand's rural underclass by introducing populist policies designed to benefit the poor. His political movement grew to become the most successful in modern Thai history.

But his opponents saw him as arrogant and a threat to democracy and their own privileges. The country has been gripped by sometimes violent protests by both sides since 2006.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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