March 14, 2006

Thousands call for Thai PM to quit

Thousands of people massed outside the office of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Tuesday, their leaders vowing the protest would go on until he quit.

More than 100,000 people began the protest after an all-night rally, but by early afternoon the crowd had dwindled to around 10,000 sitting on the main road alongside the large Government House compound.

Riot police kept watch, but there were no signs of potential violence.

Thaksin, accused of corruption and abuse of power by an extra-parliamentary coalition trying to oust him, said he would declare a state of emergency if things got out of hand, a move which could put troops on the streets.

But other top officials said there were no plans in place to do so and army commander Sonthi Boonyaratglin said he was opposed to declaring an emergency.

"I think it is useless because it will hurt the image of our country," he told reporters before the armed forces chiefs met Defense Minister Thammarak Isarangura to review the situation.

Fears of violence in a country with a long and relatively recent history of coups have been rife since the anti-Thaksin campaign caught fire in late January following the tax-free $1.9 billion sale by relatives of the business empire he founded.

But military chiefs have been going out of their way over the past few weeks to stress that they have no intention of intervening and that the era of coups is over.

The protest was the latest in a series and taking it to Government House prompted an indirect appeal from revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej to shun violence.

Chamlong Srimuang, the ascetic general who led a 1992 "people power" uprising against a military government in which about 50 people were killed, said there would be no trouble this time.

"You can be assured that nothing will happen. Do not be afraid," he told the rally.


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