Thai Deputy PM quits amid protests

October 7, 2008 12:00 am

, BANGKOK, October 7 – Thai police fired tear gas Tuesday to try to disperse anti-government protesters blocking parliament, injuring 116 people as months of political turmoil boiled over, police and medics said.

Twenty-one people suffered serious injuries, a medical official said, as police tried to disperse several thousand protesters surrounding parliament who tried to stop the first policy speech by new Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat.

The address went ahead, but the special session ended after two hours as protesters continued to mass outside, forcing Somchai and five ministers to climb over a fence to escape the mob, an AFP correspondent saw.

"House Speaker Chai Chidchob called the meeting off because he is concerned that the situation could deteriorate," government whip Witaya Buranasiri told AFP, adding that parliament would not convene on Wednesday.

Hundreds of lawmakers remain locked inside the parliament building, as protesters regrouped and surrounded all the exits.

The crackdown caps months of unrest, which began in late May when protesters launched their campaign to overthrow Thailand’s elected government because of its ties to Thaksin Shinawatra, the premier ousted in a September 2006 coup.

Supporters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) stormed Bangkok’s main government compound in late August and have been barricaded there ever since.

Late Monday, thousands heeded a call from a protest leader to march on parliament for a "final battle," prompting about 4,500 police including riot squads to move in and fire canisters of tear gas early Tuesday.

"Police have had to disperse the protesters by firing tear gas to make way for MPs to enter parliament," metropolitan police Major General Anan Srihiran told AFP.

One of Thailand’s five deputy prime ministers, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, resigned over the crackdown, saying his role as chief negotiator with the protesters had been compromised.

Nanthana Mesprasart, supervisor at Bangkok’s emergency medical response centre, said one man had his left foot amputated after it was injured in the chaos. A journalist was among the 116 people who received treatment.

Parliament, however, went ahead with its session on Tuesday, despite a boycott by the opposition Democrat Party.

"The Democrats will this morning boycott the session because the government has used force to crack down on peaceful protesters," party spokesman Buranja Smutharaks told AFP.

Somchai, who was sworn in on September 18, went ahead with his speech, which the constitution says he must read to parliament before his new government can begin implementing its policies.

He said his new administration was "determined to create national reconciliation", but as he spoke protesters who had earlier scattered returned to the parliament building, blocking off the exits.

Lieutenant Colonel Thanee Sanguanjeen, a senior police officer, estimated that up to 4,000 protesters remained on the streets.

Thai media, meanwhile, announced that Queen Sirikit was donating 100,000 baht (3,000 dollars) to pay medical expenses for the wounded protesters, who claim they are carrying out their campaign out of loyalty to the palace.

The PAD began their protests in May against the ruling People Power Party’s plans to amend the constitution, claiming the changes were aimed at helping Thaksin escape graft charges.

Samak Sundaravej was forced from office in September after a court ruled he had accepted illegal payments for a TV show, and his successor Somchai formed his new government last month.

Somchai, Thaksin’s brother-in-law, has urged the PAD to leave his offices by November, and had appointed his deputy Chavalit to negotiate with their leaders.

Those talks were jeopardised over the weekend with the arrest of key PAD head Chamlong Srimuang and protest organiser Chaiwat Sinsuwong.



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