Bangkok on a knife-edge : Government on the run, but not out

Police move behind their shields as they clash with anti-government protesters near the Government house in Bangkok on December 1, 2013. --PHOTO: REUTERS
Police move behind their shields as they clash with anti-government protesters near the Government house in Bangkok on December 1, 2013. --PHOTO: REUTERS
An anti-government protester displays an empty bullet shell allegedly found outside the Government house during a demonstration in Bangkok on December 1, 2013. --PHOTO: AFP
An anti-government protester carries a tear gas canister during clashes with police near the Government house in Bangkok December 1, 2013.--PHOTO: REUTERS

When Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra evacuated her office at Government House last Friday evening, it was the third time in six years that a Thai prime minister had been forced by the threat of mob attacks to wander the city in search of a suitable temporary office.

The choice of location tells part of the story of Thailand's political landscape.

In 2010, when so-called "red shirts" responding to the call of her billionaire brother Thaksin Shinawatra swarmed the capital demanding that Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party quit office because he had not been popularly elected, the Eton and Oxford educated prime minister holed up at the headquarters of the army's 11th Infantry Regiment, from where the operations to contain and disperse the red shirts were directed.

The party could rely on the army to back it.

The current government set up its "war room" in a police establishment, the Royal Thai Police Sports Club.

Mr Thaksin after all was once a police officer and has strong ties to the police, which is generally considered pro-red shirt.

But even in this bastion, the government seemed on the run; a bevy of foreign journalists promised an interview with the premier waited for over two hours while she met with the police chief, and then were nervously told to evacuate because protesters were infiltrating the complex.

The premier had already left for an undisclosed location, we were told.

Compared with other locations which the police defended stoutly, using tear gas and water cannons, the infiltration of the club was peaceful, watched by impassive policemen behind riot shields in a token display of potential force.

The police are under orders not to use force, which would be interpreted as using excessive force and erode the legitimacy of the government.

That could trigger a massive backlash from the protesters still out on the streets, and invite the army to intervene once again - though reluctantly given that a coup d'etat would not be accepted by the pro-Thaksin red shirt masses - to quell the violence.

Cabinet minister Chaturon Chaisang explained this unique dilemma.

"If you rely on police, it will be difficult to avoid clashes," he said.

"In this country.. if you enforce the law, it is interpreted as the government is not using peaceful means."

Sunday was supposed to be the day the government fell.

In the event, there were some peaceful takeovers of government compounds and some bullying of TV networks, and two or three pitched battles where police managed until the evening, to hold off protesters with tear gas and water cannon and in one case, rubber bullets.

Teams of police were being sent in the evening to clear some government compounds, and in at least one instance the protesters left peacefully anyway. The government is on the run, but hasn't fallen yet.

But the night is a different matter.

Bangkok is on a knife-edge.

On Saturday night roving battles on the streets outside a stadium where tens of thousands of pro-government red shirts had gathered to hear their own leaders give incendiary speeches slamming Mr Suthep, saw more than 45 injured and at the most recent count, four dead.

Firecrackers, small home made bombs, sticks and stones and bottles were used, but most deadly were unseen gunmen who contributed to the mayhem that lasted all night and into the early hours of the morning, with pro- and anti-government gangs battling each other.

Such has been the mayhem that the government told people to stay indoors on Sunday night, till the early hours of Monday morning.

Each side blames the other for deploying provocateurs.

Using faceless people to trigger violence is a time-honoured tactic in Thailand to break a deadlock.

And if it triggers massive conflict, that would force the army to intervene - leading to more problems as pro-government supporters would inevitably regroup to fight army rule.

On Sunday afternoon Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, Tweeted : "Big concern : as darkness falls in Bangkok, could be provocateurs from both Reds and anti-govt sides seeking to escalate violence."

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