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Pro-Thaksin protesters ring Thai Parliament

Monday, December 29, 2008 , Posted by Linda at 10:22 AM

BANGKOK, Thailand – Thousands of supporters of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra surrounded Thailand's Parliament on Monday, daring lawmakers to pass through their ranks to deliver a speech outlining the new government's key policies.

Supporters of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra gather Sunday, AP – Supporters of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra gather Sunday, Dec. 28, 2008, near the

With only a handful of opposition lawmakers entering the building, the morning opening of the legislature was postponed.

"If they (lawmakers) want to go in, they have to walk through us, including the prime minister," one of the protest leaders, Chatuporn Prompan, told reporters outside the Parliament compound where demonstrators spent the night.

The demonstration sparked fears of renewed political turbulence, which paralyzed the previous government for months and climaxed with an eight-day seizure of Bangkok's airports. But the earlier protesters had been part of an anti-Thaksin alliance.

The current protest group — which calls itself the Democratic Alliance against Dictatorship — is trying to pressure the government to dissolve the legislature and call snap general elections.

They plan to remain around the building while the government tries to deliver its policy statement Monday and Tuesday, the group said. The government, by law, must announce its core policies by Jan. 7.

Parliament speaker Chai Chidchob announced on local television that Monday's session was being postponed until the afternoon, adding that if the safety of lawmakers couldn't be assured "we might have to postpone it to a later date."

Protesters carried signs reading "Give us back real democracy" and "Government of treason."

The protesters — dubbed the "red shirts" for their protest attire — say new Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his Democrat Party came to power this month through a virtual coup d'etat.

The court ruling that dissolved the previous government — which was packed with Thaksin allies — and led to Abhisit's selection as prime minister came under pressure from the military and other powerful forces, the group says.

Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thuaksuban told reporters that his party's lawmakers were "not sure whether we can get into Parliament today. For their own safety, I will not let our members walk through this throng of red-shirted guys."

Chatuporn said the protesters were not blockading the building but those who wanted to enter would have to get out of their vehicles and walk through their lines.

Police closed the gates of the Parliament building Sunday in anticipation of the demonstrations. Police lines were reinforced to cordon off the building and Sanam Luang, a field in the historic heart of the capital where the pro-Thaksin group gathered to hear speeches denouncing the government.

Abhisit told reporters that force would not be used against the demonstrators.

An Oxford-educated, 44-year-old politician, Abhisit was formally named prime minister Dec. 17 in what many hoped would be the end of months of turbulent, sometimes violent, protests that had their roots in a 2006 military coup that toppled Thaksin.

Thaksin and his backers retain strong support in rural areas but have lost ground recently as former loyalists defected to join Abhisit's government, behind which the powerful military and monarchist figures have thrown their weight.

Thaksin no longer seems the prime mover in the country's political arena after being forced out of England where he sought exile, and facing probable imprisonment should he return to Thailand — although some still don't count him out.

Local media has speculated that Thaksin, once Thailand's richest man, has also taken heavy losses in the current financial crisis and no longer has the seemingly bottomless purse to support, and motivate, his backers.

Abhisit, the nation's third prime minister in four months, vowed in his inaugural address to reunite the deeply divided nation and to restore Thailand's tourist-friendly image. The eight-day airport shutdown battered the country's essential tourism industry and stranded more than 300,000 travelers.

Thailand's recent political convulsions began in August when anti-Thaksin protesters took over the seat of government to demand that Thaksin's allies resign. Since then, a series of court rulings have resulted in the ouster of two Thaksin-allied prime ministers.

In October, street clashes with police outside Parliament left two people dead and hundreds injured.

Military leaders accused Thaksin of corruption and ousted him in September 2006, keeping him in exile and controlling the country for an interim period until new elections in December 2007 brought Thaksin's allies back into power.

He returned to Thailand in February 2008 to face corruption charges but later fled into exile again and was convicted in absentia.

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