/ 24 February 2009

Thaksin supporters mob Thai premier’s office

Thousands of supporters of ousted Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra surrounded the seat of government on Tuesday, reigniting the kingdom’s political turmoil just days ahead of a key regional summit.

The red-shirted protesters called on Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve his two-month-old government and hold snap elections, saying they would stage a three-day sit-in to press their demands.

Demonstrators shouting ”We don’t want this government” broke through barbed-wire barricades manned by hundreds of police and soldiers and took control of the roads around Government House, an AFP correspondent said.

The so-called Red Shirts have campaigned against the government since a court dissolved the pro-Thaksin former ruling party ruling in December, paving the way for British-born Abhisit to take power.

One of the protest leaders, Shinawat Haboonpad, said they would stay at Government House ”at least until Thursday”.

The rally has already forced Abhisit to move his weekly Cabinet meeting due later on Tuesday to the beach resort of Hua Hin, where he will host a summit of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) leaders from Friday.

Abhisit said he was confident security forces would handle the rally peacefully and insisted that he would go to work at Government House on Wednesday as usual.

”No, I don’t worry at all,” Abhisit told reporters as he arrived at his hotel in Hua Hin.

Police said about 10 000 flag-waving protesters dressed in signature crimson T-shirts had massed outside Government House after travelling on motorbikes, trucks and on foot from a downtown Bangkok parade ground.

Some demonstrators tried to overturn a police truck before a group carrying hammers and wire cutters managed to get through the huge coils of razor wire sealing off the main road in front of the building.

Protesters using crowbars also smashed up concrete barricades behind the sprawling complex.

In addition to calling for elections, the Red Shirts have also demanded the sacking of Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya because of his links to the anti-Thaksin People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) movement.

The yellow-clad PAD occupied Government House for around three months last year — during which violent protests left two people dead — and seized control of Bangkok’s two airports in November.

They ended the sieges in December when the court dissolved the Thaksin-linked ruling party, paving the way for Democrat Party leader Abhisit to take power in a parliamentary vote.

The Red Shirts also want the return of the 1997 Constitution, which was replaced by a new Constitution following the 2006 coup that toppled Thaksin, and the speeding up of prosecutions against PAD leaders.

Another protest leader, Jatuporn Prompan, said the protesters would not obstruct the Asean summit. ”Our activities will be only in Bangkok,” he said.

The protest threatens to distract Abhisit from growing economic problems, with Thailand’s economy shrinking by more than expected in the fourth quarter of last year due to the effects of the global financial crisis.

The kingdom has endured months of political upheaval rooted in a deep divide between foes and supporters of Thaksin, who remains influential despite living in exile to avoid a jail sentence for corruption.

Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon and former policeman, is loathed by elements of the old power cliques in the military, palace and bureaucracy who felt threatened by his immense popularity with the rural poor. — Sapa-AFP