Thai protesters revive mission to unseat PM

AP News
Posted: Dec 10, 2009 8:44 AM

Protesters in Thailand revived a mission to unseat Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, saying a one-day rally Thursday was a warm-up for bigger events in the coming weeks aimed at toppling the government.

Thousands of protesters supporting fugitive ex-leader Thaksin Shinawatra rallied at Bangkok's Democracy Monument to demand Abhisit's resignation and call for fresh elections. At its peak, the crowd swelled to more than 20,000, police said.

Thaksin spoke to the crowd via video link from exile. Dressed in a suit and tie, he did not say where he was speaking from.

"Return democracy, justice and prosperity to the people," Thaksin said to raucous applause, adding that until new elections are called "we will continue our peaceful protest."

He then led a candle-lighting ceremony in honor of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who celebrated his 82nd birthday Saturday.

"Long live the king!" the crowd chanted.

Thaksin was ousted from power in a 2006 military coup amid allegations of corruption and disrespect to the king, which is a crime in Thailand. He fled Thailand last year after a court convicted him of violating a conflict of interest law and sentenced him to two years imprisonment.

Since the coup, Thaksin's supporters and opponents have repeatedly taken to the streets to spar over who has the right to rule the country, sometimes sparking violence.

The protesters, known as the "red shirts" for their signature garb, had put their anti-government activities on hold last month out of respect for the ailing Bhumibol and the week of festivities that typically surround his birthday.

Abhisit was appointed prime minister by Parliament last December after a Thaksin-allied government was dissolved by a court. Thaksin's supporters say Abhisit came to power illegitimately and should make way for an elected government.

"We want the government out. We want Parliament dissolved. And we want to see a new election," said a protest leader, Nattawut Sai-kua. "We are planning our big rally very soon."

The gathering was also called to mark a national holiday commemorating Thailand's first constitution in 1932. Protesters are calling for a return to a 1997 constitution, which was scrapped when Thaksin was overthrown.

Thaksin retains huge popularity among the rural poor, who want to see him pardoned and returned to power. But he is reviled by the educated urban elite, who support Abhisit and have led months of counterprotests.

"I want Thaksin back," said Somporn Saktongniam, a 60-year-old food vendor at the protest. "I never tire of protesting against this government."

Bhumibol, who has been on the throne for 63 years, is a constitutional monarch with no formal political role, but he is widely revered and regarded as the country's sole unifying figure.

His Dec. 5 birthday took on special significance this year due to his declining health. He has been hospitalized since Sept. 19 with an unspecified illness and emerged briefly on his birthday, looking alert but tired and weak. In televised remarks, the king called for peace and stability in Thailand.