Thai protesters to army: Which side are you on?

BANGKOK (REUTERS) - About 1,500 anti-government protesters forced their way into the compound of Thailand's army headquarters on Friday, the latest escalation in a city-wide demonstration seeking to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

"We want to know which side the army stands on," shouted one protester, as others scrambled over the compound's red iron gates in Bangkok's historic quarter.

Although the army moved its main command centre to a military camp in Bangkok's northern suburbs three days ago, the siege of its grounds by protesters is deeply symbolic and highlights the military's pivotal role in a country that has seen 18 successful or attempted coups in the past 80 years.

After forcing open the compound's wrought-iron front gates, protesters swarmed inside, demanding that Thailand's generals choose sides. About 100 soldiers stood guard. Hundreds watched from the balconies of the 19th-century cream-coloured building.

"We want the head of Thailand's armed forces to choose whether they stand by the government or with the people," Mr Uthai Yodmanee, a protest leader, said from the back of a truck.

In another district, about 1,000 gathered outside Yingluck's ruling party headquarters, shouting "Get out, get out". The protesters dispersed hours later from both places.

The invasion of the army headquarters deepens a conflict broadly pitting the urban middle class against the mostly rural supporters of Yingluck and her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and who remains central to Thailand's eight years of on-off turmoil.

The protesters accuse Ms Yingluck of abusing her party's parliamentary majority to push through laws that strengthen the behind-the-scenes power of her self-exiled, billionaire brother.

They have rejected her repeated calls for dialogue.

Ms Yingluck has publicly courted Thailand's powerful military, which has remained neutral in this bout of protests.

"The army wishes all sides to solve the problem with the country's best interests in mind," said deputy army spokesman Colonel Winthai Suvaree.

Compare that to 2008, when the military sided with protesters who helped to topple two Thaksin-allied governments.

In October 2008, after bloody clashes between police and demonstrators rallying against then-prime minister Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin's brother-in-law, then-army chief Anupong Paochinda publicly urged Mr Somchai to step down to take responsibility for the violence.

Memories of that help explain why Ms Yingluck appears to have studiously avoided a confrontation during six days of protests against her government. Police have remained restrained, separated by gates and razor wire from protesters who at times pelt them with water bottles and shout insults.

The protest leader, Mr Suthep Thaugsuban, a deputy prime minister in the previous government, told thousands of supporters occupying a state office complex late on Thursday that "the end game will happen in the next day or two".

Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, former prime minister of a military-backed government that Ms Yingluck routed in a 2011 election, joined the protests on Friday along with other senior Democrats including former finance minister Korn Chatikavanij.

"When the government acts above the law, the people no longer need to respect the government," Mr Korn told a crowd of thousands in Bangkok's Asoke commercial district.

Mr Korn and other protesters marched to the US embassy and delivered a letter which he said "explained our political situation" and emphasised Thailand "has a government that is acting above court laws".

Ms Yingluck has ruled out resigning or dissolving parliament, and appears intent on riding out the storm. As tension mounts, her government has urged supporters and police to avoid confronting demonstrators, who it says are running out of steam.

"The government will not instigate a violent situation because that is exactly what Suthep wants," said Mr Udomdet Rattanasatein, a lawmaker from Ms Yingluck's Puea Thai party.

"We will not be provoked."

Thaksin or his allies have won every election in the past decade. Ms Yingluck had governed for two years without a major challenge until last month, when her party tried to ram through an amnesty bill that would have expunged Thaksin's 2008 graft conviction and cleared the way for his political comeback.

The Senate rejected it, and Ms Yingluck then shelved it, but the protests escalated, switching from a campaign against the amnesty to a bid to bring down the government.

Ms Yingluck's Puea Thai Party received a blow last week when Thailand's Constitutional Court rejected its proposals to make the Senate fully elected. That could have strengthened her government given her widespread support among voters in the heavily populated north and northeast.

Some party lawmakers say they will not accept the court's ruling adding that the judiciary had no right to intervene in the legislative branch. The courts have played a decisive role in Thailand's recent history and annulled an election won by Thaksin in 2006, a decision that eventually led to a coup that same year.

The ruling party's stance has infuriated anti-government protesters and opposition party lawmakers who accuse Ms Yingluck of disobeying the court.

Thaksin's working-class support has ensured parties led by him, his brother-in-law and now his sister have won a decade of elections. But Thaksin's opponents attempted to overthrow all of those governments, saying he politicised and bought-off the poor with cheap credit and healthcare and wasteful subsidies.

Among the key protagonists in Thailand's dysfunctional democracy are those who revile Thaksin's authoritarianism - conservative generals, aristocrats, big businessmen and royal advisers - whose accusations of graft and disloyalty to the monarchy have mobilised Bangkok's middle class.

Thaksin, who now lives mainly in Dubai, has refuted those accusations.

The demonstrators have a presence at five locations in Bangkok, three in its historic heart, one in the city's northern fringe and another at the Finance Ministry, which they have occupied since Monday.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.