Anti-government protesters swarmed into the Thai Prime Minister’s office compound on Tuesday as police stood by and watched, allowing them to claim a symbolic victory after three days of bitter clashes.
The unexpected reversal of strategy by the government indicated it no longer wants to confront the protesters and is willing to compromise to ease tensions ahead of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 86th birthday on Thursday.
As anti-government protesters celebrated on the Government House lawn, a leader announced through a loudspeaker that on Wednesday would be devoted to cleaning up the debris at scattered protest sites to prepare for the king’s birthday.
Government officials did not immediately comment on the developments, and it was not clear if the protest movement had ended or if this was merely a lull in the violence that might pick up again after the king’s birthday.
“We wanted to come into Government House because it’s a symbolic victory. But this is a victory that is not complete,” said Direk Worachaisawad, a 45-year-old high school computer science teacher who was on the compound’s front lawn.
“It’s not over yet. We have to keep fighting,” he said. “We won’t stop until all the dirt has been swept out of Thailand.”
The protesters accuse Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra of being a proxy for her older brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They have demanded that her government hand over power to an unelected council that would appoint a new Prime Minister.
Mr. Thaksin was deposed in a 2006 military coup but remains central to Thailand’s political crisis, and is a focal point of the protesters’ hatred. He is despised by many of the mostly middle-class Bangkok supporters of the opposition Democrat Party for alleged widespread corruption and abuse of political power for his family’s benefit.
The street battles, which followed a month of peaceful demonstrations, have hurt Thailand’s image and raised concerns that prolonged unrest could damage the tourism industry ahead of the peak holiday season.
Three people have died and more than 230 were injured after clashes erupted on Saturday between protesters and police.
After resisting the protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets since Saturday, police lounged on sidewalks on Tuesday as protesters removed the barriers on a road leading to the Prime Minister’s office and walked through.
Earlier Tuesday, police used cranes to remove concrete slabs and barbed wire barricades on a nearby road leading to the police headquarters after agreeing to let the protesters into the building.
It had been widely expected that some kind of an understanding would be reached to allow the protests to pause for the king’s birthday on Thursday. The king is highly revered by most Thais and is seen as the sole uniting figure in the country.
Monday marked some of the worst clashes since the protests began last week. Protesters commandeered garbage trucks and bulldozers, and tried to ram concrete barriers at Government House and other offices. Police repelled them by firing tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets, as protesters shot back explosives from homemade rocket launchers.
On Monday night, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban had told his supporters to ramp up the campaign and storm the Bangkok Metropolitan Police Bureau, one of the main buildings they had vowed to seize as part of a campaign to topple Ms. Yingluck’s government.
The three days of violence occurred mostly near Government House, Parliament and the Metropolitan Police Bureau in the historic quarter of the capital. The area has some of Bangkok’s main tourist attractions such as the Grand Palace, Wat Pho temple and the backpacker area of Khao San Road. Most of Bangkok, a city of 10 million, was unaffected by the clashes.
Ms. Yingluck told a news conference on Monday that she was willing to do anything it takes to end the violent protests, but that the constitution did not allow her to accept Mr. Suthep’s demand that she hand power to an unelected council.
Ms. Yingluck was elected with an overwhelming majority in 2011, and many observers see the protesters’ demand as unreasonable if not outlandish.
Political instability has plagued Thailand since the military ousted Mr. Thaksin, who remains hugely popular among rural voters, in 2006. Two years later, anti-Thaksin protesters occupied Bangkok’s two airports for a week after taking over the prime minister’s office for three months, and in 2010 pro-Thaksin protesters occupied downtown Bangkok for weeks in a standoff that ended with parts of the city in flames and more than 90 dead.
Tourism and Sports Minister Somsak Pureesrisak told reporters a target of 26.5 million tourists for the year may not be met. Tourism contributes 10 per cent to Thailand’s $620 billion economy.