By Chalathip Thirasoonthrakul
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters marched on Thailand's state-owned oil company on Friday, calling for its renationalisation a day after violent clashes between pro- and anti-government groups outside the capital.
Members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) blocked the main gates outside the headquarters of PTT PCL, the oil and gas firm which was semi-privatised in 2001 by the PAD's sworn enemy, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The PAD, a coalition of businessmen, royalists and activists whose protests led to Thaksin's ousting in a 2006 coup, is waging a similar street campaign against Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, whom they accuse of being a Thaksin proxy.
PAD leaders said Thaksin and his allies were the main beneficiaries of the public listing of PTT PCL, which reduced the government's stake to 66 percent, arguing that consumers had paid higher fuel prices as a result.
"They are more concerned with the benefits of shareholders than the public interest," PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul told the cheering crowd, referring to PTT managers.
By diluting its stake, the government is unable to influence fuel price policies at PTT, the PAD said, accusing PTT of profiteering from soaring global oil prices.
"Give us back our PTT," one of the placards read, as protesters with yellow headbands waved Thai national flags or photos of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
PTT officials argue the government is still its biggest shareholder and the company supports state policies aimed at easing the burden on consumers. These include not immediately putting up pump prices when global oil prices rise.
About 300 police were deployed at the rally to prevent a repeat of recent violence between pro- and anti-government groups outside Bangkok, Metropolitan Police chief Aswin Kwanmuang said.
On Thursday, about 700 government supporters armed with planks, axes and slingshots broke through a police blockade and clashed with 150 unarmed anti-government demonstrators in the city of Udon Thani, 650 km northeast of Bangkok. Most of the 13 wounded were from the anti-government group and two were in a critical condition, police said. Thai media said one man had died but hospital staff told Reuters this was not the case. No arrests have been made.
Similar clashes took place on Thursday in another northeastern province, Buriram, where 13 people were arrested. The clashes were the most serious yet as government supporters in the provinces, led by local politicians from the ruling, six-party coalition, have vowed to prevent the Bangkok protests from spreading into Thaksin's rural heartland.
Sondhi suspended PAD protests in the countryside on Friday and criticised the police for failing to keep the peace.
"It's time for Army Commander-in-Chief General Anupong Paochinda to take action now. If he sits idly, we will have bloodshed all over the country," Sondhi said, urging the army to provide public security.
Thaksin, who is fighting a series of graft charges and swears his political days are over, said on Friday it was time for reconciliation.
"I want to see genuine peace in Thailand," Thaksin said as he greeted wellwishers ahead of his 59th birthday on Saturday.
"I want Thailand to return to be truly a Land of Smiles."