Pro-government rally gathers steam in Bangkok

Other News Materials 1 November 2008 10:34 (UTC +04:00)

Thousands of pro-government protestors flocked to Bangkok Saturday from the provinces to attend a mass rally in the capital aimed at counter-balancing months of anti-government demonstrations led by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

Bus-loads of people hailing from various provinces headed for the Rajamangala National Stadium, creating traffic jams along Ramkhamhaeng road, to claim their places at the much-anticipated "Truth Today" demonstration the highlight of which promises to be a message from Thailand's fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, reported dpa.

Thaksin, currently in Hong Kong, was scheduled to deliver a message to the audience at 9:30 pm Saturday in a pre-recorded video, according to organizers of the event.

His message will be keenly followed not just by the audience but by Thailand's Supreme Court for Political Office Holders, that on October 21 sentenced Thaksin to two years in jail for abusing his powers as prime minister in 2003 by allowing his wife to bid on a plot of land put up for public auction.

The court has threatened Thaksin with another seven year jail term if he says anything Saturday night critical of the verdict that might amount to "contempt of court."

The event, organized by the "Truth Today" show and the so-called United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), comes at a time when the Thailand's elected government is extremely fragile.

Thailand's Army Commander-in Chief General Anupong Paojinda has warned of a possible coup if there is any violence in Bangkok in coming weeks, in effect prohibiting a government crackdown on the anti-government PAD which seized Government House on August 26 and has occupied it since.

Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin's brother-in-law, has been the target of nearly daily protests led by the PAD, calling for his resignation and the dissolution of parliament.

Somchai has been sharply criticized by the military and a broad swathe of Thai society for allowing police to attack PAD-followers with tear-gas canisters on October 7 after the anti-government movement had surrounded Parliament in an effort to prevent the official launch of the new administration.

Two PAD followers died in the melee and 400 others were injured.

The PAD, a loose coalition of groups fanatically opposed to Thaksin and his political allies, sees Somchai as a nominee for the now fugitive politician who has been living in exile in London with his wife since August 11.

Thaksin's recent conviction on abuse-of-power charges was deemed a major victory for the PAD, which accuses the former telecommunications-tycoon-turned-politician of monopolizing Thai politics through populist polices during his premierships from 2001 to 2006 for his own personal benefit and those of his cronies.

But many in Thailand, especially the rural and urban poor who benefitted most from Thaksin's efforts to spread benefits to the grass roots, continue to view the controversial politician as a saviour and the PAD as a conservative, undemocratic movement bent of returning Thailand to a system of appointee governments typified by past military-led governments.

"We think we need to show that there are many people who disagree with the PAD," said Chaturon Chaisaeng, a former acting head of the Thai Rak Thai Party, Thaksin's now disbanded party.

"This rally is an important turning point for Thai politics," said Chaturon, who is one of the speakers at Saturday's rally. "If it can be held without violence it will make it harder for the military to stage a coup in the future."