Bangkok - Anti-government protesters in Thailand pinned their hopes on winning support from the powerful security forces on Thursday as they push to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and install an unelected administration.
A small group of protesters scaled the walls into the grounds of Yingluck's Government House office on Thursday but soon left without a confrontation with police stationed there.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy premier accused of murder during widespread 2010 protests, has asked police and military chiefs to meet him by Thursday evening and to choose their side in the latest crisis engulfing Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy.
The politically powerful army has staged or attempted 18 coups in the past 80 years - including the ousting of Yingluck's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, in 2006. It has said it does not want to get involved this time but may mediate.
The latest crisis in an eight-year, on-and-off political conflict again centres on Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon popular among the rural poor. The protesters view Yingluck as her brother's puppet.
Thaksin, who lives in self-imposed exile, courted rural voters to win back-to-back elections in 2001 and 2005 and gain an unassailable mandate that he used to advance the interests of major companies, including his own.
He was convicted in absentia of graft in 2008 but he dismissed the charges as politically motivated.
His opponents are Thailand's royalist elite and establishment who feel threatened by his rise. Trade unions and academics see him as a corrupt rights abuser, while the urban middle class resent what they see as their taxes being used as his political war chest.
On Monday, Yingluck was forced to call an early election for February 2 as 160 000 protesters massed around her office at Government House.
The numbers on the street have dwindled considerably since then. A Reuters reporter said most of those who scaled the Government House walls on Thursday left after razor-wire barricades in the compound were moved aside.
Protest leaders said they wanted police to withdraw from Government House. Riot police held their positions after the incursion without confronting the protesters.
The protesters have rejected the early election. They want an unelected “people's council” to run Thailand and say Yingluck and her ministers should step down. She is caretaker prime minister until the election.
“If a plane crashed with the whole cabinet in it and they all died, Thailand would still go on,” protest leader Suthep told supporters late on Wednesday.
Thaksin's supporters have said they would weigh in to defend Yingluck if Suthep appeared poised to overthrow her. On Wednesday, Jatuporn Promphan, a leader of a pro-Thaksin movement, promised to mobilise crowds that would dwarf the recent anti-government protests.
Thaksin's “red shirt” supporters brought central Bangkok to a halt in April and May 2010 in protests aimed at forcing then Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to call early elections.
That protest was put down by the military. More than 90 people, mostly Thaksin supporters, were killed over the period.
Abhisit and Suthep, a deputy prime minister to Abhisit, have been accused of murder related to those events. Suthep was in charge of a crisis control centre that authorised “live fire” zones.
Abhisit was formally charged with murder at Bangkok's criminal court on Thursday and was granted bail. Suthep did not turn up and no date has been set for the next hearing. The case could drag on for months, or even years.
Suthep's campaign to oust Yingluck has been strong on rhetoric but has failed to stop the government functioning.
Missed deadlines for Yingluck to resign have become the norm for a protest movement that has openly courted anarchy on Bangkok streets in the hope of inducing a military coup or judicial intervention.
Suthep's sometimes bewildering statements have included a call for police to arrest Yingluck for treason, an order for civil servants and security forces to report to him instead of the government and for citizen “peacekeeping forces” to take over from police. - Reuters