Thai PM flees police compound as protesters launch 'people's coup'; at least four dead

An anti-government protester runs away from tear gas outside Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, on Sunday. Nicola Asfouri / AFP - Getty Images

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Reuters

BANGKOK, Thailand - About 30,000 protesters launched a "people's coup" on Thailand's government on Sunday, swarming state agencies in violent clashes, taking control of a state broadcaster and forcing the prime minister to flee a police compound.

But after a day of skirmishes between protesters hurling stones and Molotov cocktails against riot police firing back with tear gas, the demonstrators failed to breach heavily barricaded Government House, office of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, although the number of protesters began to swell as night fell.

"They haven't seized a single place," National Security Council Chief Paradorn Pattanathabutr told Reuters.

The protesters sowed chaos in one of Southeast Asia's biggest cities, breaching a police line, seizing seven police trucks, and forcing Yingluck to move to an undisclosed location from a building where she was to give media interviews.

Small fires burned from Molotov cocktails that landed by police trucks. Protesters pulled at barbed wire fences as others washed teargas from their eyes with bottled water.

It is the latest dramatic turn in a conflict pitting Bangkok's urban middle class and royalist elite against the mostly rural poor supporters of Yingluck and her billionaire brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister ousted in a 2006 military coup.

The detonation of stun grenades, followed by the jeers of protesters, echoed across the historic government quarter, not far from Bangkok's Khao San Road tourist area, after a chaotic night of gun and knife battles in east Bangkok in which four people were killed and at least 57 wounded.

Anti-government demonstrators listen to protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban at the Ministry of Finance in Bangkok, Thailand, on Sunday. Pongmanat Tasiri / EPA

Hospitals reported 47 people injured on Sunday.

Police spokesman Piya Utayo said troops would forcibly dislodge protesters who have occupied a government complex since Thursday and the Finance Ministry since Monday. "We have sent forces to these places to take back government property," he said on national television.

Reuters journalists waiting to interview Yingluck inside the police Narcotics Suppression Bureau were told by Natthriya Thaweevong, an aide to the prime minister, that she had left after protesters made it inside the outer part of the compound, the Police Sports Club, where the bureau is located.

Protesters massed in front of a police barricade outside Wat Benjamabhopit, also known as the Marble Temple. Police fired teargas as some tried to heave aside concrete barriers.

"I just want the people named Shinawatra to get on a plane and go somewhere - and please, don't come back," said Chatuporn Tirawongkusol, 33, whose family runs a Bangkok restaurant.

Outside the Metropolitan Police Bureau, about 3,000 protesters rallied, accusing riot-clad police of being manipulated by Thaksin, a former policeman who rose to become a telecommunications magnate before entering politics and winning back-to-back elections in 2001 and 2005.

The area around Government House was a scene of nearly non-stop skirmishes, as police fired tear gas into stone-throwing crowd. A Reuters photographer saw protesters hurl at least a dozen Molotov cocktails into police positions from a college campus across a canal from Government House.

An anti-government protester avoids tear gas fired by riot police in Bangkok, Thailand, on Sunday. Sakchai Lalit / AP

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban urged government workers to go on strike on Monday and called on all television stations to stop broadcasting state news.

"We invite all Thais to join us and defend democracy," he said in a speech televised live on all almost every station, including state-owned Thai PBS which agreed to broadcast the speech after protesters swarmed into its compound.

Capping a week-long bid to topple Yingluck and end her family's more than decade-long influence over Thai politics, Suthep had urged supporters to seize government offices, television stations, police headquarters and the prime minister's offices in a "people's coup".

Suthep, a deputy prime minister under the previous Democrat-led government that Yingluck's party routed in 2011, told supporters they had occupied 12 state agencies and brought a million people into the streets.

But police said about 30,000 people joined the protest compared with 100,000 who turned out a week ago.

Yingluck, who won a 2011 election by a landslide to become Thailand's first female prime minister, has called for talks with the protesters, saying the economy was at risk after demonstrators occupied the Finance Ministry on Monday.

Suthep has ignored her.

The Democrats, Thailand's oldest political party, have not won an election in more than two decades and have lost every national vote for the past 13 years to Thaksin or his allies.

Suthep has called for a "people's council", which would select "good people" to lead, effectively suspending Thailand's democratic system. Yingluck has rejected that step as unconstitutional and has ruled out a snap election.

Thailand faces its worst political crisis since April-May 2010, a period of unrest that ended with a military crackdown. In all, 91 people were killed then, mostly Thaksin's supporters trying to oust the then-Democrat government.

Suthep faces murder charges for his alleged role in the ordering crackdown.

About 70,000 red-shirted government supporters had gathered in a sports stadium in east Bangkok but they headed home on Sunday after their leaders called off the rally to defuse tension following Saturday night clashes nearby.

Thaksin, who won over poor rural and urban voters with populist policies, was convicted of graft in 2008. He dismisses the charges as politically motivated and remains in close touch with the government from his self-imposed exile, sometimes holding meetings with Yingluck's cabinet by webcam.