Thousands march on Thai prime minister's office


  • World
  • Tuesday, 14 Mar 2006

By Ed Cropley

BANGKOK (Reuters) - An estimated 100,000 people massed outside the office of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Tuesday, their leaders vowing the protest would go on until he quit. 

They sat on the main road running alongside the large Government House compound under the watchful eyes of riot police, but there were no immediate signs of potential violence after a march from an overnight rally. 

Thai demonstrators hold banners and shout anti-government slogans during a protest rally to the Government House in Bangkok March 14, 2006. n estimated 100,000 people massed outside the office of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Tuesday, their leaders vowing the protest would go on until he quit. (REUTERS/Stringer)

However, Thaksin, accused of corruption and abuse of power by an extra-parliamentary coalition trying to oust him, said he would declare a state of emergency if things got out of hand, a move which could put troops on the streets. 

Fears of violence in a country with a long and relatively recent history of coups have been rife since the anti-Thaksin campaign caught fire in late January following the tax-free $1.9 billion sale by relatives of the business empire he founded. 

But Chidchai Vanasatidya, the deputy prime minister in charge of national security, said although an emergency could be declared, there were no plans in place to do so. 

Military chiefs have been going out of their way over the past few weeks to stress that they have no intention of intervening and that the era of coups is over. 

The overnight rally was the latest in a series and the plan to march to Government House prompted an indirect appeal from revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej not to allow the protest to descend into violence, as others in the past have. 

Chamlong Srimuang, the ascetic general who led a 1992 "people power" uprising against a military government in which about 50 people were killed, said there would be no trouble this time. 

"We will march peacefully," he told the rally, to chants of 'Thaksin, get out'. "You can be assured that nothing will happen. Do not be afraid." 

DISCIPLINE 

The crowd appeared to be well disciplined. 

When some people tried to tear down a long banner pinned to the wall of Government House bearing messages of support for Thaksin, marshals in the crowd moved swiftly to stop them. 

Chamlong's blue-clad "Dharma Army", or the Army of Buddha's Teachings -- barefoot and carrying the red, white and blue Thai flag -- led the way from the overnight rally to Government House about 5 km (3 miles) away. 

Protest leaders had hoped the crowd outside the heart of government would prevent the weekly cabinet meeting. But it went ahead with Thaksin chairing it by video-link. 

He was campaigning in the northeast for a snap election he called for April 2 in hopes of defusing the campaign to topple him, saying he would not be forced out by "mob rule" and accusing opposition parties of betraying democracy by boycotting it. 

Like earlier rallies, Tuesday's protest appeared good natured. 

But 6,000 Thaksin supporters headed from northern Thailand to Bangkok in tractors and trucks, fanning fears that yet again a Thai political confrontation could turn into street violence. 

Such fears clearly penetrated the royal palace and led to the screening on all six Thai television channels on Sunday of footage of the King, a constitutional monarch, talking in 1992 to the then prime minister and Chamlong as they knelt before him. 

Suchinda Kraprayoon, then head of a military-led government, quit after the audience and peace returned to Bangkok's streets. 

(Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak and Nopporn Wong-Anan) 

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