Bangkok: Several thousand supporters of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched three days of protests Sunday, sparking fears of a replay of the mass demonstrations that paralyzed the government for months and culminated in an eight-day seizure of the capital’s airports.
This time, it was Thaksin loyalists instead of his opponents who took to the streets.
The group, which calls itself the Democratic Alliance against Dictatorship, vowed to stage demonstrations nationwide unless Thailand’s new Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolves Parliament and holds new elections. The alliance, dubbed the “red shirts” for their favored protest attire, says Abhisit’s Democrat Party came to power this month through a virtual coup d’etat.
The group says the court ruling that dissolved the previous government, which was packed with Thaksin allies, and led to Abhisit’s selection as prime minister came under pressure from the military and other powerful forces.
Police closed the gates of the Parliament building on Sunday in anticipation that the demonstrators would try to prevent the new government from delivering its policy statement to the legislature Monday and Tuesday. But protest leader Veera Musigapong told The Associated Press that the group had not yet decided if it would move to block the building.
Police lines were reinforced in an effort to cordon off the Parliament building and Sanam Luang, a field in the historic heart of the capital where the pro-Thaksin Democratic Alliance against Dictatorship gathered Sunday.
Abhisit told reporters that force would not be used against the demonstrators.
Earlier, police Major General Amnuay Nimmano said those attempting to prevent the parliamentary session would be charged with insurrection.
He said if the rally veered toward violence, its organizers must disperse the crowds while police would avoid any clash with the protesters.
Warong Dechgitvigrom, a spokesman for the ruling Democrat Party, said party representatives would go together to Parliament on Monday morning and if it was blocked they would return to party headquarters. He said the government did not plan to force its way into the building.
An Oxford-educated, 44-year-old politician, Abhisit was formally named prime minister on 17 December in what many hoped would be the end of months of turbulent, sometimes violent, protests that had their roots in a 2006 military coup that toppled Thaksin.
Abhisit, the nation’s third prime minister in four months, vowed in his inaugural address to reunite the deeply divided nation and to restore Thailand’s tourist-friendly image. The eight-day airport shutdown battered the country’s essential tourism industry and stranded more than 300,000 travelers.
Abhisit’s Democrat Party had been in opposition since 2001, when Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon, first came to power in a landslide election.
Military leaders ousted Thaksin in September 2006, accusing him of corruption, keeping him in exile and controlling the country for an interim period until new elections in December 2007 brought Thaksin’s allies back into power.
He returned to Thailand in February 2008 to face corruption charges but later fled into exile again and was convicted in absentia.
Thailand’s recent political convulsions began in August when anti-Thaksin protesters took over the seat of government to demand that Thaksin’s allies resign. Since then, a series of court rulings resulted in the ouster of two Thaksin-allied prime ministers.
In October, street clashes with police outside Parliament left two people dead and hundreds injured.
Thaksin and his supporters retain strong support in rural areas where they built up a political base, but are disliked by many of the educated elite who viewed his six years in power as deeply corrupt and a threat to their interests.