Thai protesters at Parliament for 'final showdown'
By AMBIKA AHUJA,Associated Press Writer AP - Monday, November 24
BANGKOK, Thailand - Thousands of anti-government protesters surrounded Thailand's Parliament on Monday as riot police barricaded the building to prevent violence at a rally demonstrators have billed their final bid to oust the administration.
Protesters, who call themselves the People's Alliance for Democracy, blocked the gates to Parliament and tried to prevent lawmakers from entering and cut electrical wires outside the building to create a blackout ahead of the session scheduled for 9:30 a.m. (0230 GMT). Many demonstrators carried masks and swimming goggles to protect against tear gas, which police have said they would use as a last resort to maintain order.
The demonstrators initially called the protest to block Parliament from debating a bill to rewrite the constitution. The contentious issue was dropped at the last minute and lawmakers will instead debate legislation relating to an upcoming regional summit.
Protesters have occupied the grounds of the prime minister's office for three months in their effort to topple the government, which they allege is the puppet of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
They accuse Thaksin, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup, of corruption and abuse of power, and claim that the proposed constitutional amendment would help him stage a comeback. Thaksin is in exile, a fugitive from a two-year jail term imposed after he was convicted last month of violating a conflict of interest law.
Both sides braced for a confrontation, with protesters flanked by their own guards armed with poles, clubs and metal rods.
"I'm very scared. But it is time that we win this," said a protester, Wimon Sricarak. "We have been attacked, our friends have died, and all because they want to protect Thaksin."
Two small explosions went off before dawn Monday near the offices of a key protest leader, said police Sgt. Theerapong Rakjit. Nobody was injured and no one claimed responsibility for the blasts.
The last time the group marched on Parliament, police efforts to disperse them resulted in running street battles. Two people were killed in the Oct. 7 violence and hundreds injured.
The Education Ministry ordered four public schools in the area closed.
Handlers at the Dusit Zoo, across the road from Parliament, moved high-strung animals such as kangaroos, wallabies and elephants to the far side of the zoo where they would be more protected from any mayhem.
Police said 2,400 policemen would be stationed outside Parliament, which is about half a mile (one kilometer) from the prime minister's compound.
"Police and soldiers will not be armed with lethal weapons, only shields and batons," government spokesman Nattawut Sai-gua told The Associated Press.
The protest alliance also says it is committed to nonviolence, though forays outside its stronghold are usually led by tough young men, who carry homemade weapons such as iron rods _ and in some cases handguns _ and who have won a reputation for aggressive behavior.
The alliance accused police of being behind an attack last week in which grenades killed two protesters during demonstrations at and near the occupied Government House. Authorities have denied the charge.
Protest leaders were calling for Sunday's rally to be their biggest ever, but the number that turned out appeared to be at most just one-quarter to one-third of the 100,000 supporters protest spokesman Parnthep Wongpuapan said had been expected.
"It will be D-Day. This will be our final push to bring down the government," 64-year-old protester Chokchuang Chutinaton said Sunday.
Key protest leader Chamlong Srimuang said over the weekend that if the latest push fails to oust the government, the alliance would stop its protests.
The alliance's supporters are largely middle-class citizens, who say Thailand's electoral system is susceptible to vote-buying and argues the rural majority _ the Thaksin camp's power base _ is not sophisticated enough to cast ballots responsibly.
They propose replacing an elected Parliament with one that is mostly appointed, a move critics charge is meant to keep power in the hands of the educated, urban elite.
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