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Thai protesters begin "final" march to oust government
Sun Nov 23, 2008 7:42pm EST
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By Ed Cropley
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thousands of anti-government protesters began marching to parliament in Bangkok on Monday, calling it the "final" push in their five-month street campaign to unseat the administration.
A column of People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) members, flanked by guards wearing motorcycle helmets, goggles and surgical masks, left their protest site at Government House.
Several in the vanguard of the march wore body armor amid speculation of a confrontation with police guarding parliament, which is due to debate legislation on a regional summit to be held in Thailand next month.
"May victory be with the people," PAD co-leader Somkiat Pongpaiboon told the crowd at Government House.
The PAD, which called the march after a grenade blast last week killed one activist and wounded 23, said they also planned to besiege the finance ministry, stock exchange and homes of government leaders.
Several thousand police manned barricades around the parliament buildings, but they are under orders not to use tear gas to avoid a repeat of last month's clashes.
Two people were killed and hundreds wounded, including scores of police, in fighting that erupted on October 7 when police fired tear gas to remove protesters trying to stop Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat's maiden speech to parliament.
House leaders have refused to change the venue or postpone Monday's session, which will debate legislation relating to next month's regional summit in the northern city of Chiang Mai.
Public sector unions have called a nationwide strike for Tuesday unless Somchai, who will return mid-week from an Asia-Pacific summit in Peru, stands aside.
If carried out, the strikes would deepen the economic impact of a political crisis now in its fourth year.
Government decision-making has ground to a halt, intensifying fears about the export-driven economy's ability to withstand a global recession. Some foreign firms are already cutting back production and jobs.
The PAD is an unelected group of businessmen, academics and activists who accuse the government of being a puppet of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
A PAD security guard died on Sunday after another grenade attack a day earlier.
Major bloodshed would raise the chances of a military coup only two years after the army's removal of Thaksin, who now lives in exile after skipping bail on corruption charges.
Army chief Anupong Paochinda, who has put more than 3,000 anti-riot soldiers on standby to help the police, has said a putsch would do nothing to resolve Thailand's fundamental political rifts. Continued...
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