Thai PM rejects polls ultimatum

March 15, 2010 12:00 am

, BANGKOK, Mar 15 – Thailand\’s prime minister on Monday rejected an ultimatum by tens of thousands of protesters who had besieged the army barracks where he was holed up to demand immediate elections.

The "Red Shirt" demonstrators, loyal to deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra, had massed in front of a military barracks on the northern outskirts of Bangkok where the government and top military brass had taken refuge amid fears of violence by saboteurs.

The so-far peaceful rally took a violent turn after Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva rejected their demand and left the base by helicopter, when four grenades hit a separate barracks across the city.

The explosions injured one soldier on the arm and the other in the stomach, army spokesman Colonel Sunsern Kaewkumnerd said.

"Initially we suspect that the grenades were fired from a car," said Sunsern, adding it was not clear who was responsible.

Earlier Abhisit made a nationally televised address to reject the red-clad crowd\’s demand, saying: "the coalition parties agree the demand cannot be met".

"Elections must be held under common rules and genuine calm. We have to listen to other people\’s voices, not just the protesters\’," the prime minister said.

The Red Shirts, many from poor and rural northern areas who rail against the perceived elitism of the current government, are loyal to populist former prime minister Thaksin, who was ousted in a coup in 2006 and is living abroad, mostly in Dubai, to avoid a jail term for corruption.

Last month Thailand\’s top court confiscated 1.4 billion dollars of the telecoms tycoon\’s wealth. He addressed the crowd from an undisclosed European location by video link late Sunday, urging his supporters to press on.

At least 86,000 protesters had arrived since Saturday at a downtown rally site, where soldiers and riot police have been deployed under a strict security law that allows authorities to ban gatherings and impose curfews.

In total, authorities said, a 50,000-strong security force was on hand across Bangkok and in surrounding provinces.

The rally moved on Monday to the army barracks, where Sunsern said about 2,000 soldiers were providing security with three helicopters on standby, before they returned to their original site near government offices.

In a bizarre development, protest leader Nattawut Saikur said the Red Shirts would each let a small amount of blood on Tuesday and spill it at the gates of Government House in a show of their fierce determination.

Twice-elected Thaksin is loathed by Bangkok\’s establishment, which accuses him of corruption and disloyalty to the revered royal family. Related article: Key dates in Thaksin saga

Since the coup in 2006, Thailand has been wracked by a string of protests by the Red Shirts and their rival Yellow Shirts, whose campaign in 2008 led to a crippling nine-day blockade of the country\’s airports.

The current rally is the largest in Bangkok since the Reds rioted in April last year, leaving two people dead and scores injured.

Some banks and schools in the city were closed as the protest picked up pace over the weekend and Thailand\’s tourism authority said 37 countries had issued warnings on travel to Bangkok.

The Red Shirts travelled in convoy between the barracks and their original rally site in trucks, buses, cars and pick-up trucks.

The pro-Thaksin forces had dubbed their rally a "million man march" but police estimated their numbers reached only 86,000. Protest leaders gave various figures, all far higher than 100,000.

Despite their lower-than-expected numbers, the Red Shirts remain a potent electoral force, with polls due to be held by December 2011.


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