BANGKOK (AP) — Flag-waving protesters vowing to topple Thailand's prime minister took to the streets of Bangkok for a fourth day Wednesday, massing in the thousands at half a dozen government ministries and raising fears of fresh political violence in the divided Southeast Asian nation.
The protests were peaceful, though, and as night drew near, Yingluck Shinawatra's embattled administration still controlled every ministry except the Finance Ministry despite an opposition threat to seize them all.
"Whether we succeed or not is not the most important" thing, said Taweesak Maham, a 55-year-old Bangkok resident. "What's important is that the people in the country came out this time to be understood, to symbolically show what the people want."
In a city of some 10 million people, the demonstrators appeared to number only in the tens of thousands — far less than the 100,000-plus mustered when they began Sunday. The numbers indicate they are unlikely to bring down the government on their own without more popular support, or judicial or military intervention.
By late afternoon, whistle-blowing throngs had massed inside or around at least six of the government's 19 ministries, although they left half of them after a few hours. One large group led by protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban entered a sprawling government office complex that houses the Department of Special Investigations, the country's equivalent of the FBI, and prepared to camp there overnight.
Yingluck has repeatedly said she wants to avert violence and offered to negotiate an end to the crisis. So far, security forces have not even fired tear gas to prevent protesters from forcing the closure of multiple government offices.
"We must not regard this as a win-or-lose situation," Yingluck told reporters at parliament. "Today no one is winning or losing, only the country is hurting."
A Thai government tourism official said the country has lost 300,000 tourists from the ongoing protests so far, at a cost of half a billion US dollars.
Late Tuesday, police issued an arrest warrant for Suthep, a former lawmaker. There appeared to be no attempt to detain him, however, as he led some 6,000 supporters early Wednesday out of the Finance Ministry, which had been converted into an ad-hoc protest headquarters since crowds stormed it Monday.
Suthep says his 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.
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 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. By Wednesday, just dozens of protesters remained outside, and some employees began returning to work.
But large groups of protesters massed peacefully at several other ministerial complexes, including industry, labor, energy, science and social development. They abandoned half those sites by late afternoon.
"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, who occupied Bangkok's city center for two months in 2010. Those demonstrations ended in an army crackdown which left about 90 people dead and left swathes of downtown in flames.
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.
Suthep has rejected new elections, which the now-opposition Democrats are certain to lose.
Akanat Promphan, a protest spokesman, earlier said the offensive to seize government offices would be extended nationwide. On Wednesday, protesters gathered around 20 of Thailand's 77 provincial halls, where the local governments are located. Most of them are southern provinces, a Democrat Party stronghold.
Yingluck's government is also fending off sharp criticism during a parliamentary no-confidence debate this week. A vote is expected Thursday, although it would be impossible to unseat Yingluck since her party controls the House of Representatives.
Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker, Grant Peck and Yves Van Dam contributed to this report.