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Thai Protesters Swarm Government House After Barriers Removed


Let's turn to a country in the region that's been racked by violent protest in recent days. And now the capital, Thailand, is suddenly calm. Riot police have taken down barricades and left their defensive positions around Government House, which is the symbolic seat of power there. Protesters are now inside, moving about freely.

To get a better idea of what this all means in a country of nearly 70 million people, where the big industry is tourism, we turn to reporter Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. Good morning.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Michael, before we get into the big issues, paint us a picture of what's been going in the streets these last few days and as of now.

SULLIVAN: OK. So yesterday, picture this. I'm down around government house with the protesters who are trying to break their way in with bulldozers and trucks and they're using Molotov cocktails and throwing rocks and stones and the police are responding with tear gas and with rubber-coated bullets and with water cannon and there's helicopters flying overhead and they're dropping leaflets that are calling for the arrest of the protest leader for treason.

And then, today, all of a sudden, bam, the police are gone. They take down the barricades. They let the protesters in, and the police basically disappear, night and day.

MONTAGNE: And why would that have happened? Why did the police back off so suddenly and, it sounds, pretty dramatically.

SULLIVAN: I think there's probably a whole bunch of possible reasons. I mean, one, the police might not have wanted to take the fall if things had gotten ugly and lots of people were killed or injured. Two, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra might have ordered them to back down to avoid loss of life. She's been saying all this week that she didn't really want to use force against the demonstrators.

Third, everyone involved might have wanted to hit the pause button because the king's birthday is coming up on Thursday and the king is a very revered figure here. The military might have pressured the police to back off or maybe it's just a combination of all of it.

MONTAGNE: Okay. Well, in this pause leading up to the king's birthday, why don't you tell us what the big picture is here? Who are the players and what do they want?

SULLIVAN: The biggest player is the player who is in exile in Dubai, deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. He's the brother of the current prime minister, and the opposition, they just hate him. They tried to get rid of him in 2006. That didn't work. The army stepped in. They removed him, said he was corrupt, abused his power.

They wrote a new constitution aimed at keeping Thaksin and his kind out. That didn't work. He fled the country in 2008, after his conviction on corruption charges, but he remains hugely popular, Renee, among the rural majority and the urban poor. And the opposition says Yingluck, his sister, is just her brother's puppet, basically, that he phones the whole thing in from Dubai.

But look, put it in context here. It's a minority effort to unseat a democratically-elected government and it's still really about him.

MONTAGNE: And what is the minority here, though? Who are those out protesting and why don't they like him or his sister, the prime minister?

SULLIVAN: The protesters are drawn from the traditional Bangkok elite - monarchists, the middle class, educated people, government workers, and basically the protesters and the opposition in general see Thaksin as an upstart, and then even worse he managed to do something that they never could, really. He recognized the rural majority as a powerful vote bank and he courted them with populist policies, like a cheap healthcare plan, with a village loan program, et cetera.

And he gave these people a voice and many in the urban elite tend to turn their noses up at the rural majority. They call them kwai(ph), buffalo, and it's not a term of endearment. It means stupid. So there's that too. And finally, I'd say this is a country that's had 18 coups or coup attempts in the last few decades.

I mean democracy has been a very bumpy ride for the Thais.

MONTAGNE: So Michael, briefly, is this calm expected to last or will the protestors be back?

SULLIVAN: Renee, they'll be back. They only question is when. Will they come back immediately after the king's birthday? Will they come back in a few weeks, in a few months? This ongoing political turmoil has been something that just won't go away. It started in basically 2006 and I see no end in sight. The country is so polarized. I don't see this ending anytime soon.

MONTAGNE: Reporter Michael Sullivan speaking to us from Bangkok, Thailand. Thanks very much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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