Thailand on edge for protests against new PM

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28-Dec-2008

BANGKOK (AFP) — Thailand faced a fresh wave of political unrest on Sunday as supporters of fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra prepared for a rally against new Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

More than 3,000 police were deployed in central Bangkok as the protesters started to meet on Sunday. They then plan to move to parliament where Abhisit will deliver his first policy statement on Monday and Tuesday.

The protests are Abhisit’s first major challenge since he came to power on December 15, two weeks after a court disbanded the pro-Thaksin former ruling party following months of political turmoil in the kingdom.

“Our demand is for Abhisit to dissolve parliament because he has no legitimacy,” said Jatuporn Prompan, a core leader of the pro-Thaksin movement, who are known as the “red shirts” because of their trademark clothes.

The rally will start at 0800 GMT in central Sanam Luang park, Jatuporn told AFP. Protest leaders said they would announce the timing of the move to parliament on stage during the demonstration, he said.

Jatuporn said it was still uncertain if there would be a telephone address by Thaksin, who was toppled in a military coup in 2006 and remains in exile to avoid a jail sentence for corruption.

British-born Abhisit, the leader of the Democrat Party, brushed off the protests, saying that his government would continue to work for reconciliation and to boost Thailand’s stuttering economy.

“We will not fight with anyone. After the next two days everything will be fine,” Abhisit told reporters. “We will solve the problems, no matter how tough they are. But we have to be patient and it will take time.”

The planned rally is set to bring Thai politics full circle after a year of turmoil, with the pro-Thaksin camp using tactics that the billionaire tycoon’s foes originally employed to bring down his allies.

Protests outside parliament on October 7 by the royalist, anti-Thaksin People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), aimed at stopping then-prime minister Somchai Wongsawat delivering his policy speech, left two dead and 500 wounded.

“Police will not use violence against the protesters,” national police chief General Patcharawat Wongsuwan told reporters on Saturday.

He said around 3,600 unarmed police would be on duty, with just over half around parliament and the rest at the initial rally site or conducting weapons searches.

“If we cannot resist the protesters we will consult with parliament whether they want to postpone or not,” Patcharawat said. “If necessary, police will request the assistance of the military.”

The army declined to act when the PAD occupied the main government offices in Bangkok in August and when they blockaded the capital’s two airports earlier this month, a move that stranded around 350,000 air travellers.

The PAD ended their protest campaign when the constitutional court on December 2 ousted the government.

The Oxford-educated Abhisit has vowed a “grand plan of reconciliation” and pledged in an interview with AFP on Friday to bring the ringleaders behind the recent unrest to justice.

But he caused controversy by appointing as his new foreign minister a vocal supporter of the PAD’s airport blockade.

As Thailand’s third prime minister in four months, Abhisit also faces a tough task to smooth over the widening rifts in Thai society.

Thaksin is still loathed by the Bangkok-based elite in the military, palace and bureaucracy, who see him as corrupt, authoritarian and a threat to their traditional power base.

But his populist policies won him huge support among the urban and rural poor, especially in his native north and northeast.

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