Thai premier rejects calls to step down

Several Thai politicians at an extended parliamentary debate on how to end anti-government protests joined demonstrators occupying the prime minister's office in calling for his resignation, but a confident Samak Sundaravej insisted he would keep the reins of power, reported CNN.

A combative Samak said he called Sunday's joint session of the upper and lower houses to get lawmakers' opinions on how to restore political peace as the protesters, led by the right-wing People's Alliance for Democracy, continued to threaten chaos around the kingdom.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the opposition Democrat Party, told Parliament that Samak should dissolve Parliament and call new elections.

"Dissolving Parliament is a way for the government to show responsibility," Abhisit said.

Another Democrat lawmaker, Jurin Laksanavisit, said Samak's aggressive demeanor had fueled the crisis and urged him to step down.

"If he still holds onto office, the problems of the country will escalate," Jurin said.

Samak -- whose elected coalition government took power in February -- said he would not let protesters force his hand.

"I am sure that I love this country as much as anybody," he said. "But I love democracy much more, more than anyone who told me to resign."

The prime minister received key backing Saturday from his ruling six-party coalition, which said it would not back calls for dissolving Parliament to call new elections. The coalition controls more than two-thirds of the seats in the 480-seat lower house.

The 11-hour parliamentary debate ended early Monday. More than 1,000 government supporters had staged a spirited but peaceful demonstration Sunday in front of Parliament.

Shortly after the debate ended, a small explosion damaged windows at a police booth near the site of the anti-government rally at Government House. The blast caused no casualties and no one claimed responsibility.

The People's Alliance for Democracy, which began its occupation of the Government House compound last Tuesday, expressed little interest in the Parliamentary debate. It has at times been supported by as many as 30,000 protesters, according to an early government estimate, in its siege of Samak's office and other public areas. 

The alliance accuses Samak's government of corruption and of serving as a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted a 2006 military coup. Thaksin recently fled to Britain to escape an array of corruption charges.

The alliance's anti-Thaksin demonstrations in 2006 helped spark the bloodless coup.

The army's influential commander, Gen. Anupong Paochinda, has vowed that the military will not stage a coup.

Chamlong Srimuang, one of the protest leaders, dismissed the parliamentary debate as "a cheap joke."

Allies of the anti-government protest movement in state enterprise unions have also launched strikes and blockades to disrupt rail and air services around Thailand. 

Its leader in the southern provinces, Sunton Raksarong, threatened Sunday to shut down seven airports in his region if the government imposes emergency rule. The airports serve thousands of foreign tourists every day. Three airports were closed by protest blockades Friday night, with the busiest, at the popular tourist destination of Phuket, reopening Sunday.

Sunton threatened to block major roads to the south. Some roads in the south, north and northeast were temporarily blocked last week.

Samak led Thaksin's political allies to a December 2007 election victory, and their assumption of power triggered speculation that Thaksin would make a political comeback on the strength of his continued popularity with Thailand's rural majority, who benefited from his generous social welfare programs.

The protest alliance and their sympathizers -- monarchists, the military and the urban elite -- complain that Western-style democracy of one-man, one-vote gives too much weight to the poor people living in Thailand's countryside, whom they consider susceptible to vote buying.

They want a rollback of Thailand's democratic gains of the post-1973 dictatorship era to make Parliament a body in which most lawmakers are appointed and only 30 percent elected.

"They proposed a new system of 70-30," Samak said. "This is not democracy and I do not know why you -- parliament members -- can accept that kind of proposal."

Noting claims of "police brutality" in dealing with the protesters, Samak said he had ordered restraint in dealing with protesters. The alliance began its "final showdown" last Tuesday by dispatching dozens of masked members armed with clubs and other weapons to try to take over a state television station.

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