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Thailand's premier calls for peace on a tumultuous weekend

'Please don't hurt each other,' Abhisit Vejjajiva says in a nationwide address after a protest in Bangkok and a clash on the Cambodian border. Meanwhile, King Bhumibol is hospitalized for fatigue.

September 21, 2009|Charles McDermid and Jakkapun Kaewsangthong | McDermid and Kaewsangthong are special correspondents.

BANGKOK, THAILAND — A bloody clash at an ancient Hindu temple on the Cambodian border. Security forces deployed in the capital to quell a huge anti-government protest. A popular former prime minister calling his country a "dictatorship." And a beloved 81-year-old monarch hospitalized for the second time in less than a week.

These are some of the scenes from a tumultuous weekend in Thailand, prompting Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to call for peace and lament his nation's image in the world.

"We can express different opinions, but please don't hurt each other," Abhisit said Sunday in an address to the nation.

Abhisit, a 45-year-old British-born economist, heads a fragile coalition government that came to power last year after two of his predecessors were ousted. His Democrat Party came in third in the last elections but is expected to ride encouraging economic numbers in a strong run to national polls in 2010.

But divisions in the country run deep.

Authorities sent more than 9,000 police and military personnel into the streets to protect government offices from more than 20,000 mostly red-shirted protesters who gathered in Bangkok this weekend in support of their leader and benefactor, exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

"Our country has deteriorated and risks being a failed state," Thaksin told supporters Saturday in a video call from an undisclosed country. "The whole world thought Thailand was already developed, or almost developed, but it has gone backward to dictatorship."

Earlier this year, Thaksin's "red shirts," who call themselves the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, or UDD, broke into a meeting of regional heads of state and fought street battles with troops that left at least two people dead and hundreds injured.

Thaksin, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon and fugitive from Thai justice, was ousted in a bloodless military coup three years ago. He faces corruption charges stemming from his time as prime minister, but retains wide support in Thailand's rural northeast for his populist policies.

"The longer this government stays, the bigger the disaster is for the country. Give me just six months as prime minister, and I will bring this country back," he told his supporters, who have vowed to continue their protests.

On the border with Cambodia on Sunday, an estimated 2,000 anti-Thaksin protesters wearing their emblematic yellow shirts ended a standoff with Cambodians at an 11th century cliff-top temple by presenting a protest letter to both governments.

The protesters, who call themselves the People's Alliance for Democracy, or PAD, gathered at Preah Vihear to protest what they consider a land concession given to Cambodia by Thaksin. At least 15 were injured when PAD supporters burst through Thai police lines and raced for the temple, where they were pushed back by Cambodians armed with slingshots, sticks and other crude weapons.

"Seems like we lost this time, but at least we delivered a message to the whole world that Thai people will no longer stay in the shadow of politicians like Thaksin. We will call back for what belongs to us," said PAD supporter Mai Ghoshachandra, 24, who was at Preah Vihear over the weekend.

The temple, built by a Khmer king, stands on land awarded to Cambodia by an international court in 1962. The ruling did not include the surrounding grounds, which Cambodia has targeted for development to the displeasure of the PAD.

Thai and Cambodian troops have been dug in at the temple for more than a year. Sporadic fighting has led to several deaths, and last week there were accusations that Thai troops burned alive a Cambodian logger.

The PAD has been largely dormant since occupying the prime minister's residence for three months and shutting down Thailand's busiest airports last year. PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul, a media mogul who narrowly escaped assassination in April, was sentenced to six months in jail this month for defaming a former government official.

Later Sunday, the royal palace confirmed that King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-reigning monarch, was admitted to Bangkok's Siriraj Hospital for fever and fatigue. He was also hospitalized Wednesday, according to local news media, but Abhisit has described the king's health as "not a problem."

Bhumibol, a jazz musician and aficionado once photographed with Elvis Presley, is a unifying figure in Thailand's tough times. In August, he broke his silence to caution that the country could collapse if its polarized political factions could not work together.

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