Thai demonstrators besieged government offices Monday, including a temporary headquarters used by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, in defiance of authorities who have vowed to reclaim key state buildings.
Angry rice farmers surrounded a defence ministry complex in a Bangkok suburb where Yingluck has held meetings over the last few weeks as the government staggers on through months of protest aimed at toppling her.
Hundreds of farmers breached the perimeter to the complex, but it was not clear if the premier was inside in the building.
As darkness fell the farmers moved their protest, which is over the late payment of billions of dollars for crops pledged into a controversial rice subsidy scheme, to the Commerce Ministry.
The scheme has become a lightning rod for anger among anti-government protesters — who say it is riddled with graft and has punched a hole in Thai public finances — and has now stoked the ire of hundreds of out-of-pocket farmers.
In an attempt to assuage them, Finance Minister Kittirat Na-Ranong said the government had found the money to pay its bill, adding it would need six to eight weeks to reimburse the estimated $3.5 billion owed.
Also on Monday, thousands of demonstrators — among them a hardcore group known as the Student and People Network to Reform Thailand — rallied near Government House.
Some poured buckets of cement onto a sandbag wall in front of a gate to Government House while others manned tyre barricades nearby.
The government is attempting to seize back several official buildings after more than three months of mass rallies seeking to topple Yingluck’s administration and curb the political domination of her family.
The prime minister has been unable to use the government’s headquarters in the historic heart of Bangkok for about two months, and has instead held meetings in various locations across the capital.
— Fightback on hold —
On Friday, authorities apparently shifted tactics after months during which the demonstrators have often appeared to be more in control of the city than the officials.
Riot police swept through barricades around Government House meeting only token resistance.
But hours later protesters had returned and rebuilt their barricades unopposed.
“Yingluck will never have a chance to work at the Government House again,” firebrand protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said outside the building.
The demonstrators want Yingluck to step down in favour of an unelected “People’s Council” to carry out reforms to tackle graft and alleged vote-buying before new elections are held.
As they try to clear the protests, authorities say they are determined to avoid confrontation with the demonstrators, whose numbers on the street have dwindled from highs of at least tens of thousands following widely disrupted February 2 elections.
“We will talk and negotiate, according to the law,” Anucha Romyanan, a spokesman for the agency responsible for overseeing a state of emergency imposed in the capital, told AFP.
A wave of grenade attacks and shootings in Bangkok linked to the protests has left 11 people dead and hundreds injured, raising fears over more political violence.
Yingluck’s government held a general election on February 2 in an attempt to defuse tensions, but the opposition boycotted the vote.
Demonstrators also prevented 10,000 polling stations from opening, affecting several million people.
The rolling political turmoil is dulling Thailand’s economic prospects, with data released Monday showing full year growth for 2013 at a lower-than-expected 2.9 percent.
Thailand grew at 6.5 percent in 2012.
The forecast for this year has been trimmed to between 3.0 and 4.0 percent, according to the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB), citing the impact of the political situation on investor and consumer confidence, as well as tourism.
Yingluck’s opponents say she is a stooge for her hugely-divisive brother Thaksin, who fled overseas in 2008 to avoid jail for a corruption conviction and now lives in Dubai.
Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election for more than a decade, propelled to power by strong support from the kingdom’s rural north and northeast.
That erstwhile loyal base has also been affected by the government’s struggle to pay for rice pledged into the troubled subsidy scheme.
The kingdom’s anti-graft body is probing accusations that Yingluck was negligent in her role as nominal head of the scheme.