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.
Police pulled back from confrontation with protesters after a
stand-off at another site in the north of the capital, and made no
move against the largest sites at intersections in the city's main
shopping and business districts.
"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.
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.
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."
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.
Police later said they had recovered firearms, ammunition and drugs
from the site, where they removed barriers and tents set up by the
[to top of second column]
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 festive crowds gathered in the evening in front of a
stage at the Asoke intersection in central Bangkok.
Riot police had earlier massed at a protest site near a government
complex in north Bangkok, but withdrew after a tense face-off with
protesters sitting in the road, television pictures showed. There
was no attempt to move against protesters at the interior or energy
"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.
EIGHT YEARS OF TURMOIL
An election on February 2 failed to break the deadlock in Thailand,
a country popular with tourists and investors but blighted by eight
years of polarization 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
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
Protest leaders had urged supporters to come out in force over the
weekend, and held "Love Thailand and Break-up with the Thaksin
Regime" events in Bangkok on Friday, Valentine's Day, which
coincided with a Buddhist public holiday.
(Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak, Damir Sagolj and
Andrew R.C. Marshall; writing by Alex Richardson; editing by Robert Birsel)
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