Thaksin loyalists target Parliament House ahead of PM Abhisit's policy speech today
BANGKOK: - Tens of thousands of supporters of fugitive former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra rallied against new leader Abhisit Vejjajiva yesterday, threatening to engulf the kingdom in a fresh wave of political unrest.
The red-clad protesters massed a day before Mr Abhisit was due to give his maiden policy speech to Parliament, saying they would not give up until the government that came to power two weeks ago holds fresh elections.
The demonstrations bring Thai politics full circle after a year of turmoil, with Thaksin loyalists now using the same tactics that helped yellow-shirted rival protesters bring down a government led by the tycoon's allies.
Most of the protesters gathered at a central Bangkok parade ground and organisers said they would move to Parliament House overnight. An advance guard of several hundred had already blocked a key road outside the building.
'Our demand is for Abhisit to dissolve Parliament because he has no legitimacy,' said Mr Jatuporn Prompan, a core leader of the pro-Thaksin movement, whose supporters are known as the 'red shirts'.
Police said that more than 20,000 protesters had gathered while organisers said the figure was 50,000. More than 3,000 unarmed riot police were on duty, handing out leaflets urging peaceful protests.
A huge stage at the parade ground near the royal palace was backed with a red banner saying 'No confidence in Abhisit Vejjajiva', while protesters waved signs saying 'We Love Thaksin' and shook plastic foot-shaped clappers.
'Today the fight is not only for Thaksin but also for justice and democracy,' former foreign minister Noppadon Pattama told the crowd.
Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and remains in exile to avoid a jail sentence for corruption. Organisers said he might make a telephone address to the rally.
Oxford-educated Abhisit, the head of the Democrat Party, won a parliamentary vote to become Prime Minister on Dec 15, 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 and anti-Thaksin People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) that blockaded Bangkok's airports earlier this month, causing huge damage to the economy.
The 44-year-old Abhisit - Thailand's third premier in four months - said he would give his policy statement as planned today and tomorrow.
'We will not fight with anyone. After the next two days everything will be fine,' Mr Abhisit told reporters.
Pro-Thaksin protest organiser Nattawut Saikuar said he could 'confirm that we will not seal off Parliament tomorrow', but there were tensions when about 1,000 demonstrators set up a second stage outside Parliament House yesterday.
Mr Warong Dechgitvigrom, a spokesman for the ruling Democrat Party, said party representatives would go together to Parliament this 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.
Mr Abhisit told news agency Agence France-Presse on Friday that he had ordered police to avoid a repeat of clashes at Parliament on Oct 7, when antiThaksin protesters tried to stop then-premier Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin's brother-in-law, from delivering his policy speech.
The violence left two people dead and 500 wounded.
'Police will not use violence against the protesters,' said national police chief General Patcharawat Wongsuwan.
The protests come as Mr Abhisit 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' but has caused controversy by appointing a vocal supporter of the PAD's airport blockade as his new foreign minister.
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 north-east, where many of yesterday's protesters hailed from.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, ASSOCIATED PRESS
[What's good for the goose, is good for the gander. But I won't be surprised if there is a crackdown on these protesters because they are wearing the wrong colour shirt.]