Protesters at Thai Parliament for 'final showdown'
By AMBIKA AHUJA,Associated Press Writer AP - 2 hours 19 minutes ago
BANGKOK, Thailand - Thousands of anti-government protesters fanned out across Bangkok on Monday, forcing Parliament to shut down and a group of riot police to retreat to headquarters in what activists called their "final showdown" to oust a corrupt administration.
The Parliament postponed a joint session of both houses after protesters _ singing and dancing in a sea of yellow shirts worn out of devotion to the Thai monarch _ surrounded its gates and reportedly cut electricity to the building.
Riot police barricaded the Parliament with metal barriers and stood guard inside the compound.
Nearby, dozens of other police in riot gear retreated inside Bangkok's police headquarters as several hundred protesters pushed past a metal barricade and blocked off the street with razor wire. Rallies also were staged at the Finance Ministry and other key offices.
The protest alliance, which calls itself the People's Alliance for Democracy, already has been occupying the grounds of the prime minister's office for three months, virtually paralyzing the government, which they allege is the puppet of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Protesters accuse Thaksin, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup, of corruption and abuse of power. 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.
Monday's protest was not the first time the alliance has called for a final showdown with the government, but it was spread across a wider area of the capital than earlier rallies. Protest leaders say their goal is to block the government from functioning.
"One mission has been accomplished. We have won our victory here," a protest leader Somsak Kosaisuk said outside Parliament. "We'll keep doing this until they quit."
He called on protesters to relocate to the government's makeshift office at Bangkok's old international airport to interrupt a Cabinet meeting.
The protesters want the resignation of the current prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, who is Thaksin's brother-in-law. Somchai was in Peru for a summit of Pacific Rim leaders and expected to return midweek.
House speaker Chai Chidchob said the parliamentary session would be rescheduled "when the situation returns to normal."
Outside Parliament the mood was festive. Music blared through loudspeakers as protesters sang and danced, many with swimming goggles protectively on their foreheads in case police moved in with tear gas. Many protesters shook hand-shaped clappers to cheer on speakers.
"This is the final showdown," protest leader Somsak Kosaisuk said in one of the speeches, adding that "they have robbed the country to the point where we can't take it anymore. I promise you this will soon end."
The demonstrators initially called Monday's protest to block Parliament from debating a bill to rewrite the constitution _ a measure they said would help Thaksin stage a comeback.
Both protesters and police were 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."
Riot police armed with shields and batons were under orders to use "as little force as possible" and to try to avoid tear gas, said Bangkok police chief Lt. Gen. Suchart Maunkaew. He said police were not carrying guns.
The last time the group marched on Parliament, police efforts to disperse them resulted in running street battles. Two people were killed and hundreds injured in the Oct. 7 violence.
The fracas also disturbed animals at the Dusit Zoo across the road, and zookeepers said they were closely monitoring Monday's protest to ensure the animals' safety.
"We are worried most about elephants, kangaroos and wallabies because they are adjacent to the street where the rally is taking place," said Sompol Damnui, a top official at the zoo. He said they were prepared to relocate the animals to another part of the zoo or to a different park outside Bangkok.
The Education Ministry ordered four public schools in the area closed.
The alliance has 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.
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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