BANGKOK, August 26 – Thousands of Thai protesters Tuesday seized a state-run TV station and surrounded government buildings in their campaign to force premier Samak Sundaravej from office and cripple his administration.
The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which has been demonstrating since May, claim Samak is running Thailand on behalf of ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and is barred from holding office.
Samak, who was elected in December and formed a coalition government in February, told the nation Monday that the protests would not force him out of office, and accused the PAD of seeking to destroy Thailand’s economy.
The country’s powerful army chief urged calm, insisting the military would not overthrow the government to quell the escalating protests, which police say have attracted at least 20,000 people to the streets.
"The military will not stage a coup d’etat. The public must not panic and must carry on their daily lives. The army will not get involved in politics," General Anupong Paojinda told reporters.
Protesters marched before dawn on Government House and the National Broadcasting Service of Thailand (NBT) office, forcing the station’s staff to leave the building to move their broadcast to another location.
"Today is judgement day. I am ready if they want to arrest me," PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul told cheering crowds, most wearing yellow shirts as a mark of allegiance to revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who the protest leaders claim loyalty to.
Deputy government spokesman Nuttawut Saikua told AFP: "PAD have seized NBT to cut off the government communication. Now up to 3,000 people have occupied NBT and they plan to do their own broadcast."
A first attempt to take over the station ended with the arrests of 80 protesters. Police charged them with trespassing and seized a handgun, slingshots and golf clubs.
Elsewhere, thousands of protesters surrounded Government House, with PAD demonstrators using trucks to block all entrances in an attempt to halt the work of the recently elected administration.
"As of now the government has stopped functioning," an official who asked not to be named told AFP, saying only 10 percent of staff had made it to work.
Thousands more protesters waving national flags and banners marched through the government district, vowing to blockade all major government buildings.
By noon Tuesday, crowds had broken down police barriers and were milling round the grounds of the finance ministry and Bangkok Metropolitan Police headquarters. They also surrounded the agriculture and transport ministries.
"The easiest way to restore normalcy is for prime minister Samak to quit," said PAD spokesman Suriyasai Katasila.
"If we do not receive a clear and positive response we will prolong the rally to the next day and mobilise more protesters."
Police Colonel Ekachai Pratyavutirat, one of the officers overseeing the protests, estimated that about 23,000 demonstrators had flooded the streets.
Deputy police spokesman Major Surapol Tuanthong said 3,000 police officers had been deployed to maintain order.
About 2,500 people are also protesting on roads in the north, northeast and south of Thailand, but highways police chief Colonel Somyos Promnim told AFP that traffic was still getting through.
The Thai cabinet moved their weekly meeting to a military command office on the northern outskirts of Bangkok and remained locked away in hours-long discussion on how the handle the rallies.
Asked if the government planned to declare emergency rule, deputy government spokesman Nuttawut replied: "Wait for the prime minister. So far there is no special instruction."
PAD protests in early 2006 helped lead to the coup that unseated Thaksin, and the passage to government of his ally Samak infuriated the old power elites in the military and palace, who resented Thaksin’s hold on rural voters.