Protesters vowing to topple Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra took to the streets for a fourth straight day on Wednesday, declaring they would take over "every ministry" of the government. The brash threat is the biggest challenge yet to the embattled premier's administration, raising fears of fresh political violence in the Southeast Asian nation.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who resigned as an opposition lawmaker to lead the demonstrations, led more than 5000 people out of the Finance Ministry, which has been shut and occupied by mobs since they stormed it Monday.
Police have issued an arrest warrant for Suthep, but there appeared to be no attempt to detain him as he led the march. 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 Tuesday, 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.
Thaksin, 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 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," Suthep said. "Once you take over, civil servants can no longer serve the Thaksin regime. Brothers and sisters, go seize the city hall."
Suthep served as deputy prime minister under a previous Democrat Party administration, which faced mass protests led by Thaksin's "Red Shirt" supporters in 2010 who occupied Bangkok's city center for two months. Those demonstrations ended in a police crackdown which left about 90 people dead and left swathes of downtown 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 Yingluck's ruling party during a landslide vote that brought her to power in 2011.
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 Yingluck's government, who has also fended off sharp criticism during a parliamentary no-confidence debate this week.
On Tuesday, 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.
The anti-government campaign started last month after Yingluck's ruling Pheu Thai party tried to pass an amnesty bill that critics said was designed to absolve Thaksin and others of politically related offences and allow him to return home. The Senate rejected the bill in a bid to end the protests, but the rallies have gained momentum.
Suthep has rejected new elections, which the now-opposition Democrats are certain to lose. In a speech Tuesday to followers at the Finance Ministry, he called for a change of the country's parliamentary system.
"If we take down the Thaksin regime tomorrow, we will set up a people's council the day after tomorrow," he told the cheering crowd on Tuesday. "Let the people's council pick a good man to be the prime minister, good men to be ministers. Make it a dream team, make a Cabinet of your dream and the people's government."
Akanat Promphan, a protest spokesman, earlier said the offensive to seize government offices would be extended nationwide on Wednesday. The anti-Thaksin movement is strongest in Bangkok and the south, while Thaksin's many supporters in other areas might challenge the protesters, raising another prospect for violence.
Separately Tuesday, the Democrat Party launched a parliamentary no-confidence debate against Yingluck. They accused her administration of corruption and called her an incompetent puppet. The vote has no chance of unseating Yingluck as her party controls the House of Representatives.
The protesters' takeover of government offices has drawn criticism from the United States and the European Union, which issued a statement Tuesday calling upon "all concerned to avoid escalation and to resolve differences through peaceful means.