BANGKOK, Thailand — The political crisis that has engulfed Thailand’s capital for more than a week eased suddenly Tuesday after the prime minister ordered police to stop battling anti-government protesters. The move was timed to coincide with celebrations of the king’s birthday later this week, a holiday that holds deep significance in the Southeast Asian nation.
In a sharp reversal in strategy that followed two days of increasingly fierce street fighting, riot police lowered their shields and walked away from heavily fortified positions around Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s office at Government House.
Shortly afterward, thousands of jubilant demonstrators waving the red, white and blue Thai flag swarmed across the compound’s grassy lawn, snapping photos of themselves with cellphones and screaming “Victory belongs to the people!” Yingluck was not there at the time.
The government move was widely seen as offering demonstrators a face-saving way out, and the government expressed hope it would defuse a conflict that has killed four people and wounded more than 256 in the last three days alone. Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, however, vowed to keep up what has become an audacious struggle to topple Yingluck and keep her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, from returning to power.
Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup, and Yingluck’s rivals have repeatedly accused her of being his puppet.
“You can rest assured that this is a victory that is only partial . . . because the tyrannical Thaksin government endures,” Suthep said. “We must continue fighting.”
The protests that have convulsed Bangkok this month are part of a deep societal schism that has plagued Thailand for nearly a decade. The conflict pits the majority rural poor who back the Shinawatra family against an urban-based elite establishment that draws support from the army and staunch royalists who see Thaksin and allied governments that have succeeded him as a corrupt threat to their business interests and the monarchy.
After seizing several government ministries last week, and smashing barricades with bulldozers and commandeered police trucks in street fighting that erupted this weekend in isolated pockets of the city, the protesters refused all offers to negotiate.
Instead, they demanded Yingluck’s government hand power to an unelected council that would appoint a new premier — a demand Yingluck flatly rejected.
Many political observers and Thai academics see the protesters’ demands as unreasonable, if not absurd. Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party was elected with an overwhelming majority in 2011 and is currently unbeatable at the polls.
In a brief televised statement Thursday, Yingluck acknowledged that more needs to be done to resolve the political divide. She proposed inviting people from all walks of life to a forum to exchange views and “reform the political situation.”
“I myself want to see a solution that will bring peace to the people in the long term,” she said.
Thailand’s latest crisis began last month after the ruling party tried to ram an amnesty bill through Parliament that critics said was designed to bring Thaksin back. Thaksin resides in Dubai to avoid serving a jail term for a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated.
The bill failed to pass both legislative houses and protesters, sensing weakness, staged mass rallies that eventually spiraled into serious violence.
On Sunday and Monday, masked demonstrators tried to break through concrete barriers surrounding Government House and other offices in a historic quarter of the capital that is home to some of Bangkok’s main tourist attractions. They fired homemade rocket launchers and petrol bombs at police, who riposted with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets.
Early Tuesday, the skirmishes began again. But after a few minutes, police stopped firing back, and disappeared.
Bewildered protesters, who had been fighting just moments before, began climbing over rows of overturned concrete blast walls. They walked over shattered glass scattered in the road. They passed the burned and smashed remains of a dozen police trucks, several of them still smouldering after being set ablaze the night before.
Soon, they met thousands of other demonstrators streaming in from the opposite direction on foot, and on trucks and motorcycles. One man cut through a padlocked chain at a southern entrance to Government House, and everybody swarmed inside.
About 20 soldiers and police guarded a door into Yingluck’s offices, and protesters did not try to enter. After an hour of speeches and cheering, they all filed back out systematically, as their leaders had instructed. The organized exit fueled speculation that a deal — at least for now — had been struck behind closed doors between the two sides.
Although the protesters walked away, they were adamant they had achieved a symbolic victory. “We won’t let Yingluck back. We won’t let her work here again,” said Direk Worachaisawad, a 45-year-old high school computer science teacher who was on the compound’s front lawn.
Yingluck and her deputy said the government told police to avoid clashes so people could peacefully celebrate the birthday of ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who turns 86 Thursday.
Bhumibol is a constitutional monarch with no formal political role, but he is considered the country’s moral authority and a unifying figure. Violence on the day of his birth would be a major sign of disrespect.
Yingluck said the king’s birthday “has a special meaning” for Thais.
“This day is sacred to the hearts of the Thai people,” she said. “A day where we try to do good things and work together.”
“I want to see Thais look to each other to find an answer to the country’s problems,” she said, “so things can be peaceful and we can move forward.”