Thai protesters begin 'final battle' against government

Thousands of anti-government protesters rallied in central Bangkok on Sunday as part of a five-month-old street campaign to oust the administration.
Chamlong Srimuang, left, one of the leaders of the anti-government protesters, supervises the building of a road block against the line of police officers during a rally outside Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, on Sunday. ((Apichart Weerawong/Associated Press))
Thousands of anti-government protesters rallied in central Bangkok on Sunday, the start of what they were calling the "final battle" in a five-month-old street campaign to oust the administration.

"I fear nothing. We will not bow our heads to the dark power destroying our country," said Cat, a 48-year-old businesswoman, among the thousands of protesters waving placards and shouting "fight, fight" inside the Government House compound they have occupied since late August.

The crowd, led by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) political group, planned to march to parliament early on Monday, where police have erected barricades and stationed trucks with water cannons.

A similar protest in October left two people dead and hundreds wounded, including scores of police, when officers fired tear gas to break up a rally aimed at disrupting parliament.

This time, police have been ordered not to use tear gas or other "weapons" and only carry shields, government spokesman Nattawut Saikuar said after a meeting of security ministers.

Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat — whom the PAD accuse of being the puppet of exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, his brother-in-law — assigned army chief Anupong Paochinda to monitor the protests while he attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru.

Somchai said he has no intention of resigning.

"We came in through democratic elections, so I am not thinking of resigning at all," he told Reuters in Lima.

"I will exercise restraint to the utmost. We have to talk and try for reconciliation," said Somchai, who added that he saw no need to use stronger measures to quell the protests.

Major bloodshed would raise the chances of a military coup only two years after the army's removal of Thaksin, who now lives in exile after skipping bail on corruption charges.

But Anupong, who has put more than 3,000 anti-riot soldiers on standby to help the police, has said efforts to overthrow the government would do nothing to resolve Thailand's fundamental political rifts.

A pro-government supporter waves the Thai flag next to a portrait of ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra during a rally Sunday at a temple in Nonthaburi province. ((Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters))

The PAD, a nationalist party that has sometimes advocated an end to representative democracy, enjoys the backing of Bangkok's urban middle classes and elite, including Queen Sirikit. Thaksin and the government claim their support from the rural voters who returned a pro-Thaksin party to power in elections last December.

The PAD is calling the march "its final battle" to oust the government, which it blames for a grenade attack last week that killed one person and wounded 23. Another grenade blast near their protest site wounded eight PAD security guards on Saturday.

Somchai has denied the government or its supporters are behind the blasts. Police have made no arrests so far.

On the outskirts of Bangkok, thousands of red-shirted government supporters rallied in a Buddhist temple on Sunday to show their support for Somchai.

Jatuporn Prompan, a leader of the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), said they would not march on parliament on Monday to confront the PAD.

Raising the pressure on Somchai, public sector unions have called a nationwide strike for Tuesday unless he stands aside, a threat that, if carried out, would deepen the economic impact of a political crisis now in its fourth year.

With files from Reuters