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Thai police arrest first protest leader for flouting law

Thai police on Monday arrested an anti-government protest leader, their first such move after months of defiant rallies in Bangkok aimed at ousting Yingluck Shinawatra's beleaguered government.

BANGKOK: Thai police on Monday arrested an anti-government protest leader, their first such move after months of defiant rallies in Bangkok aimed at ousting Yingluck Shinawatra's beleaguered government.

Protest leaders have flouted arrest warrants and an emergency decree to deliver caustic daily speeches, lead marches, block roads and occupy government buildings in their bid to topple Yingluck's government.

Rallies have continued despite the declaration of a state of emergency before a February 2 snap election. The poll was widely disrupted by protesters in Bangkok and the southern provinces.

Sontiyan Cheunruethainaitham was arrested on Monday morning at a hotel in Bangkok, according to the head of the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) Tarit Pengdith.

"He was the first arrest for defying the state of emergency," he told AFP.

Authorities have repeatedly stated their reluctance to arrest protest leaders. They fear it could spark clashes with the crowd who are occupying key intersections in Bangkok for the fifth week of a self-styled "shutdown" -- albeit in diminishing numbers.

Throughout the three months of protests police have adopted defensive tactics, a move which analysts say is intended to avoid violence and the possibility of provoking a military coup.

Dozens of arrest warrants have been issued against leaders of the anti-government movement, who want to topple Yingluck and curb the influence of her divisive billionaire brother Thaksin on Thai politics.

Sontiyan was a former director at a fiercely anti-Thaksin cable channel and has spoken at the rallies.

"We count him as number two (in the movement) because he was one of the people who coordinated the sponsors for the protest," Tarit added.

The state of emergency is still in place across Bangkok and some surrounding areas.

Firebrand protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has repeatedly challenged authorities to arrest him, taunting police for failing to execute three warrants linked to the protests -- including one for treason.

Yingluck's battered government has failed to defang the protests despite dissolving parliament and holding the election at the start of the month.

She also faces rising anger from rice farmers who have not been paid under her ruling party's flagship subsidy scheme. Critics say the policy bought short-term popular support at the expense of Thailand's key rice industry and financial stability.

Hundreds of angry farmers massed on Monday at a suburban army building which the government is using as temporary headquarters, according to an AFP photographer at the scene.

Anti-government protesters allege the farmers' plight highlights bungled policymaking and corruption at the heart of the Yingluck government.

Several officials have been charged with graft linked to the multi-billion dollar scheme, while Yingluck is also under investigation over possible negligence in relation to the populist policy.

The protesters want Yingluck ousted and her government replaced by an unelected "People's Council" to enact vaguely-defined reforms before new elections.

They say she acts only on behalf of her self-exiled elder brother, former prime minister Thaksin -- whom they accuse of corruption and vote-buying. He lives in Dubai to avoid jail on graft convictions.

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