Thai Police Seek to Calm Bangkok Protests as King’s Birthday Nears

Antigovernment protesters welcomed into grounds of police headquarters with flowers and handshakes

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Damir Sagolj / Reuters

A Buddhist monk wearing a gas mask points toward police positions as the Thai security forces clash with antigovernment protesters near the Government House in Bangkok on Dec. 2, 2013

A truce has apparently been negotiated between the Thai government and protesters in Bangkok after a week of demonstrations that claimed four lives and injured more than 200.

A spokesman for the Thai police indicated that calm would be restored around the 86th birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Thursday. “We both mutually agreed to back down for the sake of our great father, our King,” said Lieut. General Paradon Patthanathabut of the National Security Council.

The ailing Thai monarch is greatly revered and to mar this important national holiday with bloodshed would be considered extremely shameful by many Thais.

In a press conference late on Monday, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban had vowed to storm the headquarters of the city police in his bid to overthrow the government. “No matter how much more they fire tear gas at us, we will seize the metropolitan police headquarters tomorrow,” Suthep promised supporters at their rally site.

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However, security forces defused any prospect for confrontation by removing barricades and inviting protesters into the grounds, even greeting them with handshakes and flowers. Gates of the Government House and police headquarters were opened and people wandered around peacefully.

The situation was markedly different from the escalating violence of the previous three days, when masked youths flinging rocks, petrol bombs and homemade explosives set about trying to storm state buildings in order to topple the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Yingluck became Thailand’s first female leader when she won a landslide in July 2011, but the 46-year-old has faced accusations of being a proxy for her brother, billionaire former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

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A deeply divisive figure, Thaksin is beloved by Thailand’s rural poor, especially in the densely populated northeast, but hated by royalists and urban elites. Ousted by a military coup in 2006, Thaksin was convicted of corruption in absentia and now lives in Dubai, where critics claim he runs the Thai government “by remote control.”

The current unrest was first spawned by an amnesty bill that would have allowed the business tycoon home and reunited with some $1.2 billion in cash and assets seized from a tax-free telecoms deal.

Opposition to this legislation brought tens of thousands onto the street early last month and the bill stalled at the Senate. Nevertheless, demonstrations escalated into an attempt to topple the government and install a “people’s council” of appointed officials to run the country.

Suthep, a former lawmaker for the opposition Democrat Party, has since been charged with “insurrection,” which carries a penalty of life imprisonment or execution, although the death penalty is almost never enforced in the Southeast Asian nation. It remains to be seen whether his arrest warrant will be executed during the temporary period of calm.

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