Thai police use tear gas in clash with royalist protesters

Sat Nov 24, 2012 6:33am EST
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By Aukkarapon Niyomyat and Amy Sawitta Lefevre

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai police fired tear gas at stone-throwing demonstrators and made dozens of arrests on Saturday as thousands demanded the overthrow of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in the biggest street protest yet against her 16-month-old government.

Protesters from the royalist Pitak Siam group, led by retired military general Boonlert Kaewprasit, repeatedly tried to breach police lines in the Thai capital and rammed a six-wheel truck into a security barrier but were held back.

They accused Yingluck's government of corruption, being a puppet of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother, and of disloyalty to Thailand's monarchy. Many were members of a yellow-shirt protest movement that helped trigger a coup by royalist generals in 2006 that toppled Thaksin.

"If I can't overthrow this government, I am prepared to die," Boonlert told supporters. He made a plea for "soldiers to come and protect us" shortly before ending the protest as torrential rain fell in early evening.

The clashes revived memories of a tumultuous 2008, when yellow-shirted protesters seized government offices, fought street battles with police, and occupied Bangkok's main airports for eight days. Amid that turbulence, two pro-Thaksin prime ministers were forced to resign by the courts.

Yingluck won a 2011 election by a landslide on support from the rural and urban poor. Her supporters, who wear red shirts at protests, held mass street rallies in 2010 against a military-backed Democrat-led government. Those demonstrations ended with a bloody army crackdown in which 91 people were killed.

"Our biggest concern is if Pitak Siam decides to escalate their rally or protesters move into key government buildings including parliament," said Piya Uthayo, a national police spokesman.

Pitak Siam, or Defend Siam — an old name for Thailand -- taps many of the same supporters who backed the yellow shirts: the traditional Bangkok elite that includes generals, royal advisers, middle-class bureaucrats and old-money families.   Continued...

Police detain anti-government protesters after a scuffle near the government house in Bangkok November 24, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer