Protesters surge into Bangkok wanting new election

One of supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra holds his poster as they rally in Bangkok Thailand, Saturday, March 13, 2010. Thousands of red-shirted anti-government protesters converged on the Thai capital Saturday, giving the government an ultimatum to dissolve Parliament or face mass marches on key spots in the city.
                                          (AP Photo/Toon Akkanibut)
 A Buddhist monk holds a banner as he joins other supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra in central Bangkok March 13, 2010. Anti-government protesters headed for Bangkok from the countryside on Saturday for what they are calling a "million-man march," aiming to paralyse the capital and topple a government they say is a front for unelected elites.
BANGKOK – Tens of thousands of red-shirted protesters from Thailand's rural areas swarmed the Thai capital Sunday for protests aimed at forcing the government to dissolve Parliament and call new elections.
Protest leaders gave the government until noon Sunday (0500 GMT; midnight EST) to accede to their demands or face mass marches on key locations in Bangkok.
The demonstrators, popularly known as the Red Shirts, want Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to call new elections, which they believe will allow their political allies to regain power. They believe Abhisit came to power illegitimately with the connivance of the military and other parts of the traditional Thai ruling class who were jealous and fearful of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's popularity while in office from 2001 until he was ousted in a 2006 coup.
In his weekly radio address Sunday, Abhisit indicated he had no plans to dissolve Parliament.
"Dissolution and call for resignations are normal in a democratic system. But we have to make sure the dissolution of Parliament will solve the problem and won't make the next election troublesome," he said.
He also denied rumors that a military coup was possible and said he would not impose a state of emergency that would give the army broad powers to deal with the protests.
Traffic was in Bangkok was light, businesses were shuttered and social events canceled as many feared the four-day demonstrations, which officially began Sunday but have been building for two days as caravans of protesters pour in from the north and northeast, would repeat past violence. But protesters stressed they would use only peaceful means in their quest for new elections.
"If the prime minister refuses to dissolve Parliament on Sunday, we will declare new measures. We are planning to march to key spots belonging to those in power," said one protest leader, Jatuporn Prompan.
"We will ask (the prime minister) to return power to the people," he said.
Jatuporn said he expected a million people to gather by noon Sunday. But local newspapers estimated the numbers at between 80,000 and 100,000, although more were still arriving from outlying areas, traveling in trucks, buses, motorcycles and river boats.
A force of 50,000 soldiers, police and other security personnel was mobilized in the capital area.
There were no reports of violence, and both Jatuporn and Abhisit praised authorities for facilitating the protesters' easy entry into the capital. Abhisit said the government has asked protest leaders to monitor any groups among the demonstrators who may want to provoke violence.
Despite newspaper headlines warning of a "red tide" about to swamp the city, the protests took on an almost festive atmosphere with musical performances and dancing interspersed with political speeches.
The march is regarded by some as the last chance for Thaksin to return to Thailand.
The protesters, formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, are made up of followers of Thaksin, along with other people who oppose the coup that toppled him.
Forcing the government out of power, Thaksin loyalists say, could pave the way for his pardon and return.
Thaksin, who resides in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, faces a two-year prison term for abuse of power. But he remains especially popular among the rural and urban poor who are thankful for the cheap medical care, low interest loans and other measures his government enacted to alleviate poverty.
On Saturday night, Thaksin telephoned the protesters' People TV station to deny rumors that he had been expelled from the United Arab Emirates and was in neighboring Cambodia. Thaksin said he was currently on a visit to Europe.
Thailand has been in constant political turmoil since early 2006, when demonstrations accusing Thaksin of corruption and abuse of power began. In 2008, when Thaksin's political allies came back to power for a year, his opponents occupied the prime minister's office compound for three months and seized Bangkok's two airports for a week.
Recent polls in Bangkok indicate a large segment of the population, irrespective of their political beliefs, is fed up with the protests, which have battered the economy, including the lucrative tourism industry.
The Red Shirts have vowed to keep their protest nonviolent. The group's last major protest in Bangkok last April deteriorated into rioting that left two people dead, more than 120 people injured and buses burned on major thoroughfares. The army was called in to quash the unrest.
Many embassies have warned their citizens to stay away from areas of the city where violence could erupt.
"This government has no intention to crack down the protesters because that doesn't benefit anyone," Abhisit said, adding the government would strictly follow legal procedures if forced to disperse lawbreakers.
Associated Press writer Thanyarat Doksone and photographer David Longstreath contributed to this report.

No comments: