Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Protesters besiege government offices in Bangkok

International Herald Tribune

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

BANGKOK: Thousands of anti-government demonstrators besieged government offices on Tuesday and briefly shut down a television station in some of the most aggressive actions in months of street protests.

Organizers called it their "final war" in an effort to bring down the government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, whom they accuse of corruption and of being a proxy for the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

An estimated 30,000 protesters gathered outside several government ministries and entered the grounds of the prime minister's office. To avoid them, he moved a scheduled cabinet meeting to the military headquarters.

Protesters often gather outside the building, called Government House, but rarely enter the grounds. The crowd, which did not attempt to enter the building, appeared peaceful, television footage showed.

Samak said he would not be provoked and would continue to take a soft line with the protesters.

Continuing protests by the same group, the People's Alliance for Democracy, weakened Thaksin before he was removed in a coup in September 2006.

Thaksin is in London, where he fled 10 days ago from Beijing, to evade prosecution in Thailand for corruption cases. He is reported to have asked for political asylum together with his wife, Pojaman.

The couple left Thailand after Pojaman was sentenced on July 31 to three years in jail for tax evasion. After attending the Olympics in Beijing, they failed to return home for a scheduled court date.

The People's Alliance - a loose grouping of pro-democracy advocates, anti-Thaksin forces and others with personal political agendas - has accused Samak and his party of trying to amend the Constitution to help Thaksin evade the corruption charges.

The government was elected in December, ending more than a year of military rule. A shaky, fragmented six-party coalition, it is led by Thaksin's associates and is said to be following his directions.

The demonstrations appeared to be aimed at creating a chaotic situation that could provoke a violent crackdown and lead to turmoil and possibly strong military action.

Anupong Paochinda, the army chief general who was one of the leaders of the coup in 2006, asserted that the military would keep its hands off the demonstrations.

"The army will not launch a coup," he said. "The people can be assured."

Dealing with the protests "is the police's job," he said.

Samak said he had placed the police under the direct command of the interior minister, Police General Kowit Wattana, but said he would not declare a state of emergency.

Speaking of the interior minister, he said, "It is my order to him to be soft and gentle. Ask them to come out. Soft and gentle. They want a spark. They want someone to hit someone. When they hear just one shot, they say, 'We won."'

But he also added: "The government's endurance has come to an end. The government has been patient and gentle all the time. I would like to tell the people who are out there, if you don't want yourself or your family to be in trouble, please go home."

Samak said that 85 people had been arrested in the demonstrations and that arrest warrants would be issued for five or six of the protest leaders.

At Government House, which houses the prime minister's office, the leader of the People's Alliance, Sonthi Limthongkul, a publisher and businessman who has feuded with Thaksin, responded with defiant words of his own.

"I won't leave until there is a political change," he said. "If you want me to leave, you will have to kill me and take my body out of here."

His next move was not clear, but the stated aim of the protests is to rid the government of Thaksin's influence.

Whatever happens, the country is likely to remain sharply divided between a royalist establishment and the pro-Thaksin forces, which have sought to control all levers of power.

The demonstrators started the day by storming the Thai state broadcaster NBT and briefly halting broadcasting by the station, which they accuse of favoring the Samak government. They were shown on television brandishing pistols, knives and golf clubs.

"They shouted, 'Get out, get out,' at us repeatedly," said a newscaster, Soifah Osukonthip. "All 150 of us were rounded up for a short while before police arrived and talked them down to the ground floor."

After a second raid, the staff fled to the Bangkok Traffic Police headquarters. Broadcasting resumed after about an hour.

Speaking in English to foreign reporters late in the afternoon, as demonstrators continued to blockade his office, Samak said, "Please feel for me, feel for my difficulties."

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