Ousted PM's lawyer calls for Thai elections

Thailand's government must hold elections soon to prove it has a public mandate after protests that left 90 dead in the nation's capital, a lawyer for fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said today.

Robert Amsterdam, who represents Mr Thaksin, said the government's handling of the "Red Shirt" protests demonstrated that it does not have the support of the people and fears the return of Mr Thaksin, whom it has called a terrorist for allegedly fomenting the unrest.

Mr Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup.

New elections are a top demand of the Red Shirt movement, which is made up of urban and rural poor, democracy activists and politicians loyal to Mr Thaksin.

Now in self-exile in Europe, Mr Thaksin faces charges of corruption and abuse of power but commands a strong following because of his populist policies.

The Thai government has also issued a warrant for Mr Thaksin's arrest on terrorism charges, a move Mr Amsterdam said was a tactical mistake.

"I think they made a serious mistake in calling him a terrorist," he said. "I think they have reduced their chances of any country extraditing him" because of the possibility of a death penalty that the charges carry.

"These people are scared of Thaksin," he said. "They are scared of someone elected by the people."

The protests, which were crushed in May, started peacefully in mid-March but turned violent as the government tried to end them. At least 90 people were killed and more than 30 buildings were damaged in arson attacks.

Mr Amsterdam, who is based in London, was speaking from Japan, where he is to urge the government to support an investigation into the causes of the violence, in which a Japanese journalist was killed.

Thai officials have said the government does not want to rush into elections before dealing with the deep social divisions that sparked the clashes. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's term ends in November next year, and they have said it is unlikely that elections would be held this year.

Mr Amsterdam called that "outrageous" and demanded elections be held soon.

"The real legitimate leader of the Thai people happens to be Dr Thaksin," he said.

Opponents see Mr Abhisit as illegitimate because his Democratic party did not win the last general election in 2007. His government was elected by parliamentary vote last year after two previous administrations loyal to Mr Thaksin were invalidated by court rulings.

Although the protests were stopped, the pro-Thaksin Red Shirt movement remains strong.

Thousands of mourners filed through a Buddhist temple in Bangkok yesterday to attend the cremation of Major General Khattiya Sawasdiphol, who was shot in the head by a sniper on May 13 while giving interviews to foreign journalists.

It was the largest gathering of Red Shirts since the army's crackdown on their protest on May 19.