Political enemies square off with rallies in tense Bangkok

Other News Materials 23 November 2008 13:24 (UTC +04:00)

Tens of thousands of government opponents and supporters squared off in separate demonstrations Sunday in what many fear may lead to more street violence in Thailand's capital, dpa reported.

An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people had gathered at Government House, which has been occupied by the anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) for the past three months, Bangkok police said.

Meanwhile, an estimated 40,000 red-shirted supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra staged their own rally at the Suan Kaew temple in Nonthaburi, a northern suburb of the capital.

PAD leader Chamlong Srimuang reiterated threats to march on the nearby Parliament Building on Monday, to block legislators from launching amendments to the constitution to pave the way for the fugitive former premier Thaksin return to power.

The PAD is a loose coalition of groups fanatically opposed to Thaksin, a former billionaire telecommunications tycoon who dominated Thai politics during his two terms between 2001-06 who continues to be the central character in Thailand's ongoing political drama.

The alliance has vowed to continue its protests until the current cabinet, led by Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin's brother-in-law, falls.

It will start by demonstrating outside Parliament on Monday and end on Wednesday with an unknown finale.

"November 26th will be the highlight," another PAD leader, Somkiat Pongpaiboon, said with a hint of warning. "The world will see something new on that day."

Thailand is getting used to surprises from the PAD group.

It first emerged in late 2005, with nightly gatherings in Bangkok's Lumpini Park led by media tycoon Sondhi Limthongkul to expose the corrupt practices of then-prime minister Thaksin and his cabinet.

The PAD protests gathered mass popularity in January 2006, after Thaksin engineered the tax-free sale of his family shares in his Shin Corp Group to Temasek Holdings of Singapore, for 2 billion dollars, which outraged Bangkok's middle class and political elite.

As the protests persisted, Thailand became more polarized into the anti-Thaksin and pro-Thaksin camps. He was toppled by a bloodless military coup on September 19, 2006.

But Thaksin supporters returned to the political scene after the December 23, 2007 general election, when the People Power party won a majority of seats by promising to bring him back to power and reinstate many of his populist policies that won popularity in some poor rural areas.

The PAD returned to the streets of Bangkok in May, after it became clear that the government was pushing for constitutional amendments to reinstate Thaksin and many of his cronies who had been banned from politics for five years.

On July 31, the Criminal Court sentenced his ex-wife Pojaman to three years in jail on tax evasion charges; on October 21, the Supreme Court for Political Office Holders found Thaksin guilty of abuse of power for allowing his wife to successfully bid on a prime plot of Bangkok land at a 2003 government auction.

The court sentenced him in absentia to two years in jail. Thaksin was in London at the time of the verdict, although he has since lost his London retreat after UK revoked his tourist visa earlier this month, leaving his and Pojaman homeless.

Thaksin last week announced unspecified plans to return to Thai politics, a threat that has further galvanized both his friends and foes and set the stage for possible street clashes.