BANGKOK, Thailand – Thai anti-government protesters on Friday ejected several hundred police from the grounds of the prime minister's office, which the demonstrators are occupying in an effort to force the country's leaders to resign.
The followers of the right-wing People's Alliance for Democracy celebrated their victory after the police left by dancing to rock music — a sharp contrast to the high tension of the night before when they feared a raid and built makeshift barricades.
"We can relax now, but please be cautious, they might return soon," a protest organizer, Samran Rodpetch, announced from a stage.
The ousting appeared to be a psychological victory for the group, which accuses Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej's government of serving as a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and faces several corruption cases. Thaksin is in self-imposed exile in Britain.
Despite promising a "final showdown" this week, the alliance has instead suffered several setbacks, beginning with a publicity debacle Tuesday when it sent several dozen masked thugs to take over a government-controlled television station. The men surrendered to police and video of their bullying tactics has been broadcast repeatedly.
Then on Wednesday, arrest warrants were issued for nine of the group's leaders and a court ordered them to leave the Government House compound, which they broke into on Tuesday afternoon. A court Thursday rejected the alliance's appeal against the eviction order.
The government has exercised restraint. Early Friday as many as 400 police officers did not fight back when the crowd pushed them off the grounds.
Samak, who refuses to resign, has urged police not to use force, accusing the protesters of trying to provoke violence.
"They want bloodshed in the country. They want the military to come out and do the coup again," Samak said Tuesday.
One of the top alliance leaders, Chamlong Srimuang, told reporters Thursday night that they would continue to rally at the government compound despite the court order to vacate.
"From now on, it will be stickier," he vowed. "Our political rallying will get stronger because more of our supporters from upcountry will come to help us. We will not back down."
Conditions at the Government House grounds have been deteriorating, with bags of trash piling up and protesters hanging laundry from buildings. The grounds were mostly covered with sleeping mats and some protesters could be seen lounging in the hallways of some buildings.
With toilets in short supply, men lined up to relieve themselves in public.
Ambulances anticipating a clash parked outside the site alongside food vendors who earned some cash amid the chaos. Supporters also came by donating bags of chips, rice and crates of soda.
Other demonstrators distributed fresh underwear.
In a development that appeared to be related to the protests, there some rail service was interrupted when an unknown number of railway workers took two-day sick leaves.
There was no public explanation for the absences, but alliance leaders have threatened actions in support of their cause by workers at state enterprises.
The number of protesters in and around Government House has varied from a few thousand most mornings to a high of 30,000 by government estimates who carried out protests at several locations Tuesday across Bangkok, the Thai capital.
The crowds usually swell after working hours.
"We can withstand any difficult conditions if we can topple Samak," said Kitja Usaiphan, 43, a fisherman who has been camping at the site since Tuesday.
Arrest warrants were issued Wednesday by the Criminal Court for Chamlong and eight other leaders of the right-wing protest group on charges of insurrection, conspiracy, illegal assembly and refusing orders to disperse.
Insurrection, which is the legal equivalent of treason, carries a maximum penalty of death or life imprisonment.
Thousands of additional protesters poured into the Government House compound in response to the court orders, and many formed a human chain overnight around the group's top leaders to prevent them from being taken away.
After Thaksin was deposed in the bloodless coup, his party was dissolved and he was banned from public office until 2012.
But Samak led Thaksin's political allies to a December 2007 election victory, and their assumption of power triggered fears that Thaksin would make a political comeback. He remains popular with the country's rural majority.
Thaksin has sought refuge in Britain, claiming he would not get a fair trial in Thailand.