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Thailand protesters demand premier's resignation

Supporters of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra surround a key government building in Bangkok.

February 25, 2009|Charles McDermid and Thammarat Lomthong

BANGKOK, THAILAND — Thais took their politics back into the streets of Bangkok on Tuesday, with a sea of red-shirted protesters surrounding government headquarters and demanding that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva step down.

Abhisit defied the demonstrators by slipping into his office under heavy protection early this morning, according to news reports. He exited a short time later to attend an official ceremony in another part of the capital, the reports said.

Protest leader Jatuporn Prompan described the siege as a peaceful protest meant to expose what he described as Thailand's dictatorship in disguise. Members of the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship, or UDD, known for its red shirts and fierce allegiance to deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, say the 2-month-old Thai administration was not democratically elected.

The UDD is also demanding the prosecution of key figures linked to the yellow-clad People's Alliance for Democracy, or PAD, the group that occupied Bangkok's two airports for eight days in November and December, and for three months occupied the same government compound the UDD now encircles. The two groups have clashed violently.

"The real enemy of Thailand is the PAD, the government, the Democrat Party [of Abhisit] and bureaucrats," Jatuporn told the crowd outside Government House. "Today we proved Thailand is run by our UDD."

Thousands of riot police and soldiers were deployed and barbed-wire barricades erected as the mob swelled to a reported 20,000.

The current governing coalition was formed in December after a court ruling that ousted a pro-Thaksin government. Some think the coalition is held together only by the political poise of Abhisit, a 44-year-old Oxford-educated economist whose Democrat Party came in second in the most recent balloting at the end of 2007.

The rally came just days before the annual meeting of the 10-member Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations is set to open in Hua Hin, a beach resort about 85 miles southwest of Bangkok. After Thailand's tumultuous 2008, which included the high-profile PAD protests and a border skirmish with Cambodia, the prestigious event has been viewed as a way to reassure regional allies that Thailand is free from political turmoil.

Abhisit was in Hua Hin on Tuesday to inspect the summit venue, and had said there that he intended to return to work at Government House today.

"We will not use violence," Abhisit told reporters. "I am ready to walk into [Government House] as long as there are no weapons."

Thaksin, a flamboyant telecommunications tycoon, remains popular in rural areas because of his populist programs.

He was removed in a 2006 military putsch and now lives in self-imposed exile while facing charges of corruption and abuse of power.

Jatuporn told reporters that the UDD would camp outside Government House before marching again to demand the resignation of Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya for his links to the PAD's airport occupations.

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McDermid and Lomthong are special correspondents.

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