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Thai protesters still in place, vow to press on with campaign

An anti-government protester sits behind a barricade near Government Complex in Bangkok February 15, 2014. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
An anti-government protester sits behind a barricade near Government Complex in Bangkok February 15, 2014. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

By Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Anti-government protesters vowed on Saturday to maintain their campaign to unseat Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra despite dwindling numbers on the streets and a first tentative move by police against sites they are occupying in Bangkok.

Riot police reclaimed a thoroughfare in the capital's government district on Friday without resistance, but backed off from confrontation elsewhere in the city and made no move against the largest protest sites at intersections in the main shopping and business areas.

"Our mission is still going on, which is to reform the country," Ekkanat Promphan, the protesters' spokesman, told reporters. "All protest site are still occupied by us and we will still continue our activity during the weekend."

The protesters view Yingluck as a proxy for her elder brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a self-exiled former prime minister who clashed with the establishment before he was overthrown by the army in 2006.

They are demanding that Yingluck makes way for an appointed "people's council" to overhaul the political system and rid it of the influence of Thaksin, a telecoms billionaire they accused of using taxpayer money to buy votes with populist giveaways.

Riot police lined up on Saturday near a protest site at a government complex in north Bangkok, scene of a tense stand-off on Friday morning, but made no attempt to move in.

National Security Council Chief Paradorn Pattanathabutr said later that the authorities had called off the operation and were hoping to hold talks with the local protest leader at the site, a Buddhist monk, on Sunday.

"We have already called off the plan to reclaim the site since there were several factors that could disrupt the operation," Paradorn told reporters. "Moreover, police who were working at the...site told me that they are trying to persuade the monk to sit down and talk again tomorrow."

Tarit Pengdith, chief of the Department of Special Investigation, Thailand's equivalent of the FBI, told a news conference that protesters would not be dispersed by force.

BITTER EIGHT-YEAR CONFLICT

The protests, which began in November, are the latest round in a bitter eight-year conflict broadly pitting the Bangkok-based middle-class and royalist establishment against the mostly rural supporters of the Shinawatras in the north and northeast.

Haunted by memories of a bloody 2010 crackdown by a previous administration that killed dozens of pro-Thaksin "red shirt" activists and anxious to avoid giving the coup-prone military a reason to intervene, the government has largely avoided confrontation.

Despite that, 11 people have been killed and hundreds hurt in sporadic clashes. The past week has been quiet with most protest sites dotted around Bangkok thinly attended during the day.

Although the protests have failed in their aim to "Shutdown Bangkok", they have disrupted normal government and business, with Yingluck forced to vacate her Government House offices in January and hotels reporting occupancy rates down sharply.

They also prevented voting in parts of the country in a February 2 election, resulting in Yingluck remaining in office but heading of an enfeebled caretaker government until polling can be completed.

The spending constraints placed on the caretaker government have exacerbated the problems faced by Yingluck's flagship rice subsidy program, which helped her win power in 2011, with farmers staging protests after not being paid for months.

In a sign those funding strains might be easing a little, a senior official said that the government would start paying farmers next week after tendering to sell some of the country's huge rice stockpiles last week.

"We will open tenders more often in a bid to get more money to pay farmers," Surakak Riankrul, head of the Department of Foreign Trade, told Reuters.

(Writing by Alex Richardson; Editing by Matt Driskill)

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