Thursday, April 9, 2009

Thai Premier Stands Firm as Protests Spread, Threaten Summit

By Daniel Ten Kate and Suttinee Yuvejwattana

April 10 (Bloomberg) -- Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva rejected the demands of protesters who used taxis to block Bangkok’s streets in a bid to force his ouster before he hosts a summit of Asian leaders that starts today.

Tens of thousands of people remained camped out at the premier’s office and other locations in the capital after bringing traffic in key intersections to a standstill. Abhisit, declaring today a public holiday, said the protesters “broke the law” and vowed not to quit or call an election.

“Dissolving the parliament is not an appropriate option at the moment,” Abhisit, 44, said in a nationally televised address late yesterday. “The right time to consider that is when we have political stability and the expression of people’s rights without a climate of violence.”

The expanding rallies threaten to undermine Abhisit’s four- month-old administration as he welcomes 15 leaders attending the three-dayAssociation of Southeast Asian Nations meeting. Demonstrators, who have surrounded his office since March 26, say his government is illegitimate because he took power after a court disbanded the former ruling party.

“The situation is volatile and could turn violent,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “They have pent-up rage from being insulted, underestimated and dismissed by the establishment.”

Protesters planned to travel to Pattaya, a resort town 150 kilometers (90 miles) south of the capital, where the Asean summit will take place, said protest leader Jatuporn Prompan. Leaders from China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand also plan to attend the meeting.

Disable Government

“Our aim is to make the government unable to function,” protest leader Jatuporn Prompan said by telephone. “Our demand hasn’t been met.”

Abhisit said the government has stepped up security in Pattaya to prevent demonstrators from disrupting the summit. His car was attacked by a group of protesters on April 7 in the resort town as he returned to Bangkok from a cabinet meeting.

The protests escalated on April 8 when crowds besieged the house of Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, 88. They say Prem, King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s top adviser, and two fellow advisers should step down for allegedly plotting the coup that ousted former Prime MinisterThaksin Shinawatra. Prem has denied any involvement in the 2006 coup.

In targeting Prem, a former army chief and prime minister, the demonstrators face accusations they are criticizing the monarchy, a crime in Thailand that can see offenders jailed for as many as 15 years. Under Thailand’s constitutional monarchy, the king is head of state while the prime minister and parliament govern. The king must still approve all legislation.

Red Shirts

The protesters wear red shirts to distinguish themselves from rivals who sported yellow to show loyalty to King Bhumibol during a 193-day campaign to remove a pro-Thaksin government last year. They came from 35 provinces, mostly in Thaksin’s electoral base in northeast Thailand, to join the April 8 march.

“We love peace, but we need to fight,” Thaksin told a rally late yesterday via videophone. “We have to tell the world this government is no longer legitimate.”

Thaksin, who fled Thailand last year to escape corruption charges, has spoken to his supporters through a video link-up in rallies throughout the country since Abhisit took power. He was sentenced to two years in prison in October for helping his wife buy land from the government while he served as prime minister.

Since the coup, the courts disbanded two pro-Thaksin parties and banned about 140 politicians loyal to him, including former Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat in December. Parties linked to Thaksin have won the past four national elections on heavy support from the northeast, Thailand’s poorest region.

Airport Protest

Abhisit took power in December after protesters who support him shut down the country’s airports for eight days and a court dissolved the ruling party for vote buying. He wooed a faction of lawmakers that previously backed Thaksin to join his coalition, and consolidated his parliamentary majority in a March 21 confidence vote.

Thailand’s consumer confidence fell to the lowest level in more than seven years in March, buffeted by the protests and an economy heading for its first annual contraction in more than a decade. The index dropped to 66 from 67.2 in February, the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce said yesterday.

Thailand’s Stock Exchange of Thailand will remain open today along with banks, Patareeya Benjapolchai, its president, said by phone. The benchmark SET Index has risen 1.6 percent since protests began March 26, compared with a 3.7 percent rise in the MSCI Asia Pacific Index.

To contact the reporters on this story: Daniel Ten Kate in Bangkok atdtenkate@bloomberg.netSuttinee Yuvejwattana in Bangkok

Last Updated: April 9, 2009 13:03 EDT 

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