By Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Aubrey Belford
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said on Monday she would “open every door” to find a peaceful solution to the current political crisis, as thousands of protesters took to the streets of the capital seeking to topple her government.
She told a news conference that police would not use force against the protesters. But later, the national security chief said rubber bullets were being used as protesters threatened to advance to Yingluck’s office, the focal point of the demonstrations since the weekend.
The violence is the latest twist in a conflict pitting Bangkok’s middle class and royalist elite against the mostly poor, rural supporters of Yingluck and her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist former prime minister who was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and lives in self-imposed exile.
A Reuters reporter said demonstrators had succeeded in taking down at least one outer layer of the concrete barriers set up by the authorities to defend Government House, Yingluck’s office in the heart of Bangkok.
After using round upon round of teargas on Sunday to repel the protesters, police stepped up their response on Monday.
“We are alternating between the use of water cannons, teargas and rubber bullets. Rubber bullets are being used in one area only and that is the bridge near Government House,” Paradorn Pattanathabutr, the head of the National Security Council, told Reuters.
Teargas was also used against protesters at the headquarters of the Bangkok metropolitan police.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban met Yingluck late on Sunday but insisted there were no negotiations to end the worst political crisis since bloody unrest in 2010.
“I told Yingluck that if police put down their weapons, we will welcome them as they are also Thai,” he told supporters later. “I told Yingluck that this will be our only meeting and we will not meet again until the people win.”
The meeting, he said, was arranged by the military, a powerful institution that has taken sides against Thaksin-allied governments in previous crises and put down a pro-Thaksin movement in 2010. More than 90 people died then.
This time, the military has taken a back seat.
“The military has positioned itself as neutral and it wants to see a peaceful way out,” Yingluck told the news conference.
Thai financial markets were weak on Monday, with the baht currency down against the dollar despite Bank of Thailand intervention to support it. However, it recovered slightly after Yingluck’s comments on the protests.
The baht has fallen 3 percent since early November and the benchmark stock index has lost 5.8 percent in the past month.
The cost of insuring exposure to Thai government debt via credit default swaps (CDS) has also crept up in recent weeks.
Thaksin, who won over poor rural and urban voters with populist policies, was convicted in absentia of graft in 2008 but he dismissed the charges as politically motivated. He is widely seen as the power behind Yingluck’s government, sometimes holding meetings with the cabinet by webcam.
The protests have been joined by the opposition Democrats, Thailand’s oldest political party. It has not won an election in more than two decades and has lost every national vote for the past 13 years to Thaksin or his allies.
Suthep, 64, was a deputy prime minister in the Democrat-led government that lost power to Yingluck in a 2011 election. He wants a vaguely defined “people’s council” to replace her government and for a parliament made up of nominated worthies.
“The protesters’ demands are impossible to meet under the framework of the constitution,” Yingluck told the news conference.
“TOOLS OF THE REGIME”
Suthep has set a Tuesday deadline for her to step aside and his movement has called for civil servants to go on strike.
“Government workers are still tools of the Thaksin regime. Today we have to take care of this so that civil servants will stop serving Thaksin. They can do this by stopping work,” Akanat Promphan, Suthep’s stepson and a spokesman for the Civil Movement for Democracy protest group, said on Monday.
Yingluck said government offices were open as normal and many ministries appeared to be functioning. The Commerce Ministry released inflation data as planned.
Protesters went to state television stations on Sunday and got them to agree to broadcast Suthep’s speeches live.
“We did not set out to intimidate the media yesterday but we urged them to broadcast the correct news,” Akanat said.
Some big shopping malls in Bangkok closed as a precaution on Sunday but were open on Monday. Several major universities said they would close to ensure the safety of students.
Three people died at the weekend, including a student and a “red shirt” government supporter. At least 59 people were injured during a night of violence on Saturday in an area to the east of the city where the “red shirts” were rallying in a sports stadium near a university.
Another 54 people were injured on Sunday, mostly through inhaling teargas, but there were no further deaths, according to the government’s emergency medical service.
The protesters occupied a government complex and the Finance Ministry last week. Police spokesman Piya Utayo said on Sunday that troops were being sent to retake those buildings but no move has been made yet.