Last updated: February 14, 2014 3:29 pm

Thai police in show of force against anti-government demonstrators

Thai police break down tire barriers at an anti-government protest camp in Bangkok©Getty

Thousands of Thai police poured on to Bangkok’s streets on Friday in a show of force against anti-government demonstrators before backing off and leaving most of the protest sites in place.

Riot officers tore down barricades left by demonstrators who abandoned a camp near the prime minister’s offices, but drew back from a confrontation at another official complex and did not touch the near-deserted blockades scattered around the business district’s main roads.

The tentative skirmishing underlined how a three-month battle for the streets of the capital feels increasingly like a sideshow to the manoeuvrings of the royalist, military and legal powers that have played critical roles in Thailand’s politics since its parliament was created 82 years ago.

It also highlighted an eerie new phase in a conflict that broadly pits an autocratic traditional elite against the populist crony capitalism of Yingluck Shinawatra, prime minister, and her brother and predecessor, Thaksin Shinawatra, who is widely seen as driving government from peripatetic self-imposed exile.

A disrupted general election this month has propelled Thailand into political limbo as southeast Asia’s second-largest economy faces huge – and, because of law and custom, largely unarticulated – uncertainties in areas ranging from the succession of the world’s longest ruling monarch to the tension between entrenched militarism and universal suffrage.

On Friday, one organiser of a street occupation on the edge of Bangkok’s upmarket Ratchaprasong shopping district said his group would not resist removal if the police came, as they were prepared for a much more profound and attritional fight with government.

“We know that this problem is not easy,” said the man, who gave his name only as Amrit, citing concerns that his job in a state university would be jeopardised if he revealed his full identity. “But we can wait until we win.”

In a sign of how the nature of the protests is changing, many of the demonstration sites in the city are now almost empty during the day – even if an after-work crowd of a few hundred do turn up to have picnics or enjoy the agitprop from the comfort of foldable chairs.

Indeed many longstanding street demonstrators, usually wrapped in the red, white and blue of the national flag, have appeared vague and confused about what they want to achieve for Thailand beyond the Shinawatras’ removal.

However a clue exists to another agenda in the yellow of King Bhumibol Adulyadej they also wear and their vows to “protect my king”.

Suthep Thaugsuban, a leader of the anti-government movement, has voiced not just urban middle class anger about corruption and abuses of government power, but also his fears that the rural electoral dominance of the Shinawatras and their allies threatened the status of the monarch of 67 years and the traditional establishment interests grouped around him.

“If it was only about corruption, half of the protesters would not be here,” said one opposition demonstrator, who asked not to be named. “But, because of the king, many more people come.”

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Strict and frequently enforced lèse-majesté laws carrying jail sentences of up to 15 years prevent any substantial discussion of the once-absolute Chakri dynasty’s past, present and future role in society.

While the king intervened in a 1992 political conflict to order a prostrated ruling general and protest leader to stop deadly street battles in Bangkok, the palace has said nothing directly about the present crisis – although pictures of Princess Chulabhorn, the King’s youngest daughter, wearing the national flag colours have been circulating widely on the internet.

Many people say one driver of the current confrontation is royalist concern about the durability of the monarchy under the respected 86-year old king’s designated successor, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who does not have the same traditionalist following as his father and is liked by some of Mr Thaksin’s supporters.

But almost nothing emerges publicly of this debate in a society where all shades of opinion from staunch royalism to republicanism can be heard in private.

Pravit Rojanaphruk, a Thai journalist and analyst, has said the result is a self-censored country “filled with those who love and those who lie about their love for the monarchy”.

Some Thais say this is part of a much broader omerta about a national history that includes judicial coups, 18 successful and attempted military takeovers since 1932 – and several mass killings of protesters by the army.

As the government and demonstrators assessed their latest inconclusive showdown, one commentator said it was hard to see a resolution for a country where “feudalism, democracy and dictatorship are in such a tangled mess”.

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