Protesters vowing to topple Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra took to the streets for a fourth straight day, declaring they would take over “every ministry” of the government.
The threat is the biggest challenge yet to the embattled premier’s administration, raising fears of fresh political violence in the nation.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who resigned as an opposition politician to lead the demonstrations, led more than 5,000 people out of the finance ministry, which has been shut and occupied by mobs since they stormed it on Monday.
Police have issued an arrest warrant for Mr Suthep, but there appeared to be no attempt to detain him as he led the march.
The authorities had said they would not arrest him while he rallied at the ministry as part of a pledge to avoid clashes with protesters.
In a speech late yesterday, Mr Suthep announced his movement’s goal is to replace the government with a non-elected council, a change he said was necessary to eradicate the political machine of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Mr Thaksin, Ms Yingluck’s billionaire older brother, was ousted by a 2006 military coup and fled the country to avoid a two-year prison term on a corruption conviction.
He continues to sharply divide the nation, with his supporters and opponents battling for power.
In broad terms, the confrontation pits the Thai elite and the educated middle-class against Mr Thaksin’s power base in the countryside, which benefited from populist policies designed to win over the rural poor.
“Let the people go to every ministry that remains to make civil servants stop serving the Thaksin regime,” Mr Suthep said.
“Once you take over, civil servants can no longer serve the Thaksin regime. Brothers and sisters, go seize the city hall.”
Mr Suthep served as deputy prime minister under a previous Democrat Party administration, which faced mass protests led by Mr Thaksin’s “Red Shirt” supporters in 2010 who occupied Bangkok’s city centre for two months.
Those demonstrations ended in a police crackdown which left about 90 people dead and left parts of the city in flames.
On Sunday, more than 100,000 anti-government demonstrators staged the country’s biggest protest in years.
Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election since 2001, and the Democrats were crushed by Ms Yingluck’s ruling party during a landslide vote that brought her to power in 2011.
Ms Yingluck called for calm and offered to negotiate with the protest leaders.
“If we can talk, I believe the country will return to normal,” she said. She has vowed not to use violence to stop the protests.
The protests and forced shutdown of several government ministries by protesters have dealt a significant blow to her government.
Yesterday demonstrators surrounded the interior ministry and then cut off the electricity and water to pressure people inside to leave.
Security personnel locked themselves behind the ministry’s gates, with employees still inside. The transport, agriculture and tourism ministries were also closed because of the presence of protesters.
The occupation of ministry offices has raised fears of violence and worries that Thailand is entering a new period of political instability.
Akanat Promphan, a protest spokesman, said the offensive to seize government offices would be extended nationwide today.
The anti-Thaksin movement is strongest in Bangkok and the south, while Mr Thaksin’s many supporters in other areas might challenge the protesters, raising another prospect for violence.
The protesters’ takeover of government offices has drawn criticism from the US and the European Union, which issued a statement yesterday calling upon “all concerned to avoid escalation and to resolve differences through peaceful means”.