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Thai protesters force PM to delay speech

world Updated: Dec 29, 2008 09:43 IST
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Thousands of Thai protesters calling for fresh elections blocked roads in front of parliament in Bangkok Monday, forcing new premier Abhisit Vejjajiva to delay his maiden policy speech by several hours.

Police said 9,000 red-shirted demonstrators loyal to former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a 2006 military coup, moved to parliament overnight after gathering on Sunday night at a city centre parade ground.

Protesters surrounded the entrances to parliament early Monday and vowed to stay there until the resignation of Abhisit, who won a parliamentary vote two weeks ago after a court dissolved the previous, pro-Thaksin government.

Parliamentary speaker Chai Chidchob said the speech was delayed to avoid a repeat of violent protests outside parliament on October 7, when two people were killed and 500 injured.

"We agreed to delay the session to allow the government to solve the problem. It is delayed to 2 pm (0700 GMT) and if there is no confirmation from government then we may consider postponing it again," Chai said.

Organisers said they would allow British-born Abhisit and his cabinet only to walk through the ranks of protesters and refused to allow any cars to pass the blockade.

"We want to make it clear that we reject the prime minister's route to power," said Nattawut Saikuar, one of the protest organisers. "We will do nothing when they walk, apart from asking them to return our sovereign power."

Another pro-Thaksin leader, Jatuporn Prompan, told the crowds there would be a "civil war" if police used force to break up the protest and said the new government "comes from military support."

The protests have brought Thai politics full circle after a year of upheaval, with Thaksin loyalists using the same tactics that helped rival demonstrators to bring down a government led by the tycoon's allies.

Oxford-educated Abhisit won a December 15 parliamentary vote to become premier, less than two weeks after a court dissolved the former ruling People Power Party that was loyal to Thaksin.

That verdict followed months of protests by the royalist People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a yellow-clad anti-Thaksin group that blockaded Bangkok's airports earlier this month, causing huge damage to the economy.

The PAD accused the previous government of being a corrupt proxy for Thaksin.

Thaksin is living in self-imposed exile to avoid a jail sentence for corruption in Thailand but has made a series of telephone speeches to protests in recent weeks.

Abhisit told AFP last week he had ordered police to avoid a repeat of the October 7 clashes at parliament, when the PAD tried to stop then-premier Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin's brother-in-law, delivering his policy speech.

The protests come as Abhisit -- Thailand's third premier in four months -- faces a raft of problems, ranging from Thailand's stuttering economy to the enormous divide between pro- and anti-Thaksin forces.

He has vowed a "grand plan of reconciliation" and a 300 billion baht (8.6 billion dollar) economic stimulus package, but caused controversy by appointing a vocal supporter of the PAD's airport blockade as his foreign minister.

Monday's policy speech to the upper and lower houses of parliament is a constitutional requirement before Abhisit's government can start work.

Twice-elected Thaksin is still loathed by the Bangkok-based elite in the military, palace and bureaucracy, who backed the PAD and see Thaksin as corrupt, authoritarian and a threat to their traditional power base.

But his populist policies won him huge support among the urban and rural poor, especially in his native north and northeast, from where many of Sunday's protesters hailed.