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ASIA: Protesters at Thai Parliament for 'final showdown'

24 Nov 2008 4:45 PM
By Ambika Ahuja

BANGKOK, Nov 24 AP - Thousands of anti-government protesters surrounded Thailand's Parliament on Monday, forcing legislators to postpone a joint session, while more demonstrators rallied at other government offices in an action billed as their final bid to oust the administration.

Riot police barricaded Parliament with metal barriers and stood guard inside the compound as the protesters, who call themselves the People's Alliancefor Democracy, marched on the building and blocked its gates from the outside.

The protesters also cut electrical wires to create a blackout.

Many demonstrators carried masks and swimming goggles to protect against tear gas, which police have said they would use as a last resort to maintain order.

The alliance has occupied the grounds of the nearby prime minister's officefor three months in an effort to topple the government, which they allege is the puppet of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

They accuse Thaksin, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup, of corruption and abuse of power.

Thaksin is in exile, a fugitive from a two-year jail term imposed after he was convicted last month of violating a conflict of interest law.

House speaker Chai Chidchob called off the session "because most members ofparliament could not get into the building," said deputy speaker Samart Kaewmeechai. But the move did little to appease protesters.

"We won the first battle but we must stay here so they can't reconvene," a protest leader told the cheering crowd outside Parliament.

Protesters also marched to the Bangkok police headquarters and the Finance Ministry.

Another group of protesters surrounded the headquarters of the Chart Thai party, a member of the ruling coalition, and cut electricity to that building, Chart Thai lawmaker Ekapot Parnyam told TNN television.

The demonstrators initially called Monday's protest to block Parliament from debating a bill to rewrite the constitution.

The contentious issue was dropped at the last minute and MPs had planned todebate legislation relating to an upcoming regional summit.

The protesters say the proposed amendment would help Thaksin stage a comeback.

"This is the final showdown," a protest leader Somsak Kosaisuk told cheering protesters outside Parliament.

"We have been here for a long time. We have been patient. But they have robbed the country to the point where we can't take it anymore. I promise you this will soon end."

Both sides braced for a confrontation, with protesters flanked by their ownguards armed with poles, clubs and metal rods.

Riot police armed with shields and batons were under orders to use "as little force as possible" and to try to avoid tear gas, said Bangkok police chief Lieutenant General Suchart Maunkaew. He said police were not carrying guns.

Two small explosions went off before dawn on Monday near the offices of a key protest leader, said police Sergeant Theerapong Rakjit. Nobody was injured and no one claimed responsibility for the blasts.

The last time the group marched on Parliament, police efforts to disperse them resulted in running street battles. Two people were killed and hundredsinjured in the October 7 violence.

The protest alliance also says it is committed to nonviolence, though forays outside its stronghold are usually led by aggressive men carrying homemade weapons such as metal rods - and in some cases handguns.

The alliance accused police of being behind an attack last week in which grenades killed two protesters during demonstrations at and near the occupiedGovernment House.

Authorities have denied the charge.

Key protest leader Chamlong Srimuang said at the weekend that if the latestpush fails to oust the government, the alliance would stop its protests.

The alliance's supporters are largely middle-class citizens, who say Thailand's electoral system is susceptible to vote-buying and argues the rural majority - the Thaksin camp's power base - is not sophisticated enough to cast ballots responsibly.

They propose replacing an elected parliament with one that is mostly appointed, a move critics charge is meant to keep power in the hands of the educated, urban elite.