Protesters in Thailand vowed Tuesday to force the closure of more government offices throughout the country in a bid to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Their leader announced for the first time that their goal is to topple the government and replace it with a non-elected council.
Suthep Thaugsuban, who resigned as an opposition lawmaker to lead the protests, said the change is necessary to eradicate the political machine of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin, Yingluck's 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. Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election since 2001.
The protesters began occupying and besieging several government ministries on Monday, and made the Finance Ministry their headquarters.
Police issued an arrest warrant on Tuesday for Suthep, who served as deputy prime minister under a previous Democrat Party administration, for leading the storming of the ministry. But police said he would not be arrested at the rally as part of a pledge to avoid clashes with protesters.
However, protesters late Tuesday blocked roads near the Finance Ministry and surrounded more than 10 police vans that had stopped at a nearby gas station. The standoff extended past midnight.
Protesters accuse Yingluck, who took office in 2011, of being a puppet controlled by her brother.
She fought a two-front political war on Tuesday, fending off sharp criticism during a parliamentary no-confidence debate, while protesters besieged several more ministries.
She 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.
Demonstrators surrounded the Interior Ministry and then cut 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 Tuesday because of the presence of protesters.
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 offenses and allow him to return home. The Senate rejected the bill in a bid to end the protests, but the rallies have gained momentum.
On Sunday, more than 100,000 anti-government demonstrators staged the country's biggest protest in years.
In 2010, about 90 people were killed when a Democrat Party-led government ordered a military crackdown on Thaksin's "Red Shirt" supporters who were occupying parts of central Bangkok. This week's occupation of ministry offices has raised fears of violence and worries that Thailand is entering a new period of political instability.
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. "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."