Thai protesters surround parliament

November 24, 2008 12:00 am

, BANGKOK, November 24 – Thousands of Thai protesters surrounded parliament Monday in an effort to prevent lawmakers from meeting in what they say is their final push in a six-month campaign against the government.

Demonstrators began leaving Government House — the prime minister’s cabinet offices which they have occupied since late August — early Monday and marched towards parliament a few blocks away in Bangkok’s historic district.

A Metropolitan Police spokesman said about 18,000 protesters from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) had taken to the streets, and managed to block all three roads leading to parliament by about 7:40 am (0040 GMT).

"Today they discuss constitution amendments. Can we let it happen? Can we let the parliament meet?" cried a protest leader on a truck as thousands of supporters cheered "No!" and waved noisy plastic clappers.

A sea of people dressed in yellow shirts and headbands which symbolise loyalty to the monarchy surged in front of police barricades, many waving national flags and portraits of the deeply revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Witnesses said hundreds of volunteer PAD security guards — know as the "Srivijaya Warriors" — wearing black shirts and wielding homemade batons were protecting the crowd of protesters.

About 1,150 police with shields stood guard in and around the barricaded parliament to try and prevent a repeat of bloody street battles on October 7 at the same location that left two protesters dead and nearly 500 people injured.

"We don’t know what will happen now. We will decide according to the situation," PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul told AFP.

"We could move to the Stock Exchange of Thailand or the foreign ministry," said Sondhi, adding that they were waiting to see how many more supporters showed up for what he earlier called their "final battle".

The PAD began their protests on May 25, and aim to bring down the government elected in December, accusing it of being a corrupt proxy of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a September 2006 coup.

Government spokesman Nattawut Saikuar said on Sunday that about 2,000 police are deployed in Bangkok to deal with the protests and 2,000 soldiers are also on stand-by, but vowed authorities would not use force.

Pitoon Pumhiran, parliament secretary-general, told reporters on Monday it was "highly likely" that the joint session planned for 9.30 am would be postponed as only a handful of lawmakers had made it into the building.

Parliament officials had insisted that amendments to the constitution — which the PAD oppose — were not on the agenda. Lawmakers instead planned on approving the signing of a number of international agreements.

Witnesses said PAD protesters attempted to cut electricity to the parliament building and a loud bang was heard near a pylon, but an AFP reporter inside parliament said the electricity supply remained normal.

The PAD occupied nearby Government House after massive rallies in late August, and called for their supporters to gather again on Sunday to avenge the death of one of their supporters in a grenade attack at the protest site on Thursday.

PAD leaders accuse the government of being behind that attack, which also injured 29 protesters, and a similar explosion that injured eight more anti-government protesters on Saturday.

The government has denied any involvement, and Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat — Thaksin’s brother-in-law — has vowed an investigation into the violence, although no arrests have been made so far.

Three small blasts also hit near PAD leader Sondhi’s Bangkok offices early Monday, causing minor damage but no injuries.

Thaksin fled the country in August this year but a power battle is raging between those who support the former leader and the old power elite in the military, palace and bureaucracy who want to purge Thailand of his influence.


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