Protesters at Thai Parliament for 'final showdown'
By AMBIKA AHUJA,Associated Press Writer AP - Tuesday, November 25
BANGKOK, Thailand - Thousands of demonstrators shut down Thailand's Parliament on Monday, but even as protest leaders declared victory, they warned that their "final struggle" to oust the elected government will only get more intense.
There were only minor scuffles as protesters, who call themselves the People's Alliance for Democracy, successfully blockaded the Parliament building in their campaign to force the resignation of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat.
Police, under strict orders to avoid the use of force, exercised restraint as demonstrators pushed past them, sometimes showering them with curses in an apparent effort to provoke a violent response that might discredit the authorities.
"Tomorrow is going to be more intense," top protest leader Chamlong Srimuang said. "We request that you sleep well tonight to save your energy."
The blockade was the latest turn in a political crisis that began in 2006, when a similar campaign against then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra led to him being deposed by a military coup for alleged corruption and abuse of power.
But further efforts to cripple Thaksin's political machine failed, and his political allies won a December 2007 election.
The alliance then resumed its street protests and finally stormed the prime minister's office compound on Aug. 26, vowing not to leave until they have forced Thaksin's allies from power. They accuse Somchai of acting as a proxy for Thaksin, who is his bother-in-law.
Thailand's economy, already struggling amid the global downturn, has been hit hard by the political turmoil. The state planning agency said Monday it grew at its slowest pace in more than three years this past quarter.
Thaksin, who is currently in Dubai, said he could steady the economy and would return home if the king pardoned him.
"With me at the helm I can bring confidence quickly back to Thailand," Thaksin told Arabian Business magazine.
Parliament postponed a joint session of both houses on Monday after protesters surrounded the building and cut electric lines to the building. House Speaker Chai Chidchob said the session would be rescheduled "when the situation returns to normal."
Smaller demonstrations followed at the Finance Ministry and Bangkok's old international airport, which now serves as the temporary offices for Somchai's government. Thousands of protesters were camping out Monday night at the airport, where the alliance has appeared to shifted its attention.
"They are stepping up pressure on the government by trying to hamper its every effort to govern," said Panithan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "Even if it doesn't get violent, the continuation of this would make it very difficult for the government to function."
Chamlong, the protest leader, said the coming demonstrations would be peaceful. An attempt to blockade Parliament on Oct. 7 resulted in clashes with police that left two dead and hundreds wounded.
"We came unarmed. I am old, if I die that's OK if that means a better future for my children, I'm happy," said Umorn Siman, a 62-year-old protester.
But the group's front lines are manned by tough young men, who carry homemade weapons such as iron rods _ and in some cases handguns.
The alliance has accused police of being responsible for violence, including an attack last week in which grenades killed two protesters. Authorities have denied the charge.
Though the alliance mustered thousands of supporters Monday, as the deadlocks continues, popular support for the alliance is waning.
Thaksin is still adored by many in Thailand's rural majority. Their loyalty was sealed by generous social and economic welfare programs for previously neglected provincial areas.
His opponents are mostly better educated, more affluent, urban Thais. They say Thailand's electoral system is susceptible to vote-buying and argue that the rural majority is not sophisticated enough to cast ballots responsibly.
Thaksin fled overseas in August to escape corruption charges. He has been sentenced to two years in jail for violating a conflict of interest law.
Somchai was in Peru on Monday for a summit of Pacific Rim leaders.
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