BANGKOK (AP) — Emboldened by the removal of Thailand's prime minister, anti-government protesters withdrew from the city's main park Monday and marched to the vacated prime minister's office compound — where the protest leader has pledged to set up his new office.
Meanwhile, the country's new caretaker leader hosted his first formal news conference with foreign media at a makeshift, suburban outpost that has been the government base for months. He shrugged off the protesters' plans to occupy the symbolic seat of power.
"We do not want violence or any problems," said acting Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, defending the government's hands-off approach as good crisis management. In a 40-minute news conference, he reiterated calls for a July election and said he and his Cabinet were committed to finding a peaceful solution to the country's deepening political crisis.
Monday's developments highlighted the government's lack of power as Thailand's political crisis grinds into its seventh month. One newspaper compared the political situation to a sinking ship that it called the "Thaitanic."
Protesters achieved one of their goals last week when the Constitutional Court dismissed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for nepotism in a case that many viewed as politically motivated.
But they say her removal is not enough. They want to set up an unelected "people's council" to implement still-undefined reforms to combat corruption and money politics before an election can be held. They oppose elections scheduled for July, which the current ruling party would likely win.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who has led the movement for six months, has called for a "final push" to install an unelected leader — a goal that critics call undemocratic but supporters say is a necessary step to carry out needed reforms.
On Monday, Suthep ended a months-long occupation of Bangkok's Lumpini Park, a tropical oasis that protesters had converted into a litter-strewn campground. He led thousands of supporters to the Parliament, where the Senate was holding a meeting Monday to discuss the crisis and debate his controversial proposal for an appointed prime minister.
Later in the evening, protesters planned to march to their new base outside the prime minister's office compound, called Government House. The compound has been vacant for months due to violent clashes between protesters and police nearby.
Suthep says protesters will remain outside the compound and that he will not occupy the actual prime minister's office. But he plans to set up an office in the compound's Santi Maitree Building traditionally used for state visits. In more stable times, the building was used for meetings with dignitaries such as President Barack Obama and Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
There was no apparent resistance to Suthep's plan. The military that provides security at Government House said over the weekend he would be allowed in to avoid further clashes in a crisis that has left more than 20 dead and hundreds injured since November.
"Every so often, the stewards of the nation rearrange the deck chairs, as 'Thaitanic' continues to plough relentlessly further into uncharted territory, without a captain," The Bangkok Post newspaper said in a Sunday editorial. "The ship is still heading right for that iceberg."
Yingluck's Cabinet named deputy premier Niwattumrong as acting prime minister, but protesters say he doesn't hold the authority and status to be the head of the government. Her supporters have warned that any attempt to install an unelected prime minister would be a disaster for the nation that could spark "civil war."
Like Yingluck, he is forced to work out of the Office to the Permanent Secretary for Defense in the unfashionable suburb of Muang Thong Thani. Niwattumrong called foreign journalists to his makeshift office to show leadership as the crisis continues to batter the country's image, its tourism industry and overall economy.
"I don't think we'll have a civil war," Niwattumrong said, in an effort to ease concerns that rising tension could trigger widespread violence. "It's already (been) six months, and we can manage the country quite well."
Both supporters and opponents are holding large rallies in the Thai capital, which have raised concerns of clashes.
Thailand's long-running political crisis began in 2006, when Yingluck's brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was toppled by a military coup after being accused of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Thaksin, a former telecommunications billionaire, remains highly popular among the rural poor in Thailand's north and northeast, and parties controlled by him have won every national election since 2001. The anti-government protesters, aligned with the opposition Democrat Party, say they want to remove all traces of his political machine from politics.