BANGKOK – Thailand's embattled prime minister begged protesters who have staged the most sustained street rallies in Bangkok in years to call off their demonstrations Thursday and negotiate an end to the nation's latest crisis.
The protesters, led by former lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban, have vowed to bring down Yingluck's government. And although thousands of them occupy the Ministry of Finance and are holed up in a sprawling government office complex where they camped overnight, they don't have the strength of numbers to succeed without more support or judicial or military intervention.
"Please call off the protests for the country's peace," Yingluck said. "I'm begging you, the protesters, because this doesn't make the situation any better."
Yingluck spoke to reporters just before winning a parliamentary no-confidence vote. Lawmakers voted 297 to 134 against the motion, which never had a chance of succeeding because her party and its allies hold a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives.
The demonstrations are the biggest threat to Yingluck's administration since she came to power two and a half years ago in a vote her Pheu Thai party won by a landslide.
Despite the win, she has been dogged by claims she is a puppet of her brother Thaksin Shinawatra — a former prime minister who was ousted in a 2006 military coup.
Thaksin, who lives in Dubai to avoid serving a jail term for a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated, is a highly polarizing figure in Thailand. So much so, that an ill-advised bid to push a general amnesty law through parliament — which would have paved the way for his return — sparked the latest wave of protests earlier this month.
On Sunday, more than 100,000 people rallied in Bangkok against Yingluck's government. And this week, tens of thousands have massed outside half a dozen ministries, shutting down some and calling on workers to stay home. On Thursday, Suthep could be seen relaxing on the white marble floors of one vast government office complex, where supportive civil servants posed for pictures with him.
Yingluck played down the protests, saying "the seizing of the ministries are symbolic, but in reality, we can still work ... the bureaucracy can still run."
Still, the demonstrations have emboldened her political opponents, and raised fears of fresh political turmoil and instability of the kind that has plagued the divided Southeast Asian nation for nearly a decade.
Before Thaksin was toppled in a coup — allegedly for corruption, abuse of power and insulting the nation's revered king — he won over Thailand's rural underclass by introducing populist policies designed to benefit the poor. His political movement grew to become the most successful in modern Thai history.
But his opponents, largely urban members of the urban middle class and elite, saw him as a threat to democracy and their own privileges, and they have fought back hard — first with the 2006 coup that overthrew Thaksin, then with hostile judicial rulings and parliamentary maneuvering that removed two pro-Thaksin prime ministers who followed.
Since assuming office in 2011, Yingluck has managed a fragile detente with the same military that toppled her brother, while facing other major crises like the floods that ravaged the country in 2011, the worst in half a century.
And Yingluck's government has reacted calmly this week, clearly hoping to avoid clashes. A warrant was issued for Suthep's arrest, but there has been no overt attempt to act upon it.
On Thursday, Yingluck appealed again for negotiations, saying there would be no pre-conditions for talks. Suthep has already rejected that.
"There will be no negotiation," he told reporters Wednesday.
Suthep was deputy prime minister in an administration that cracked down harshly on pro-Thaksin demonstrators who flooded Bangkok's glitziest quarter in 2010 and occupied it for two months. Those protests ended with more than 90 people dead and 2,000 wounded, many of them after a military sweep dispersed the crowds.