Supporters seek pardon for fugitive former Thai PM

Thousands of supporters of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra rallied in central Bangkok today and then marched to the royal palace, seeking a pardon for the fugitive leader.

After months of calm, the march to the ceremonial palace of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej threatened to rekindle the political turmoil that has gripped the country since before Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup. The king has made no direct comment on the several rounds of riots staged by rival groups — including the shutdown of the capital's airports — since late last year but has stepped in on rare occasions to defuse political crises during his six decades on the throne.

At least 20,000 Thaksin supporters, all in red shirts, rallied at a field in the historic heart of the capital. About 2,000 then marched a few miles through streets to the Grand Palace to submit the petition.

Speaking by telephone to the rally from an undisclosed location abroad, Thaksin thanked his supporters.

"People are here today because they feel fed up with three years of injustice," the former prime minister told the cheering crowd. "We count on His Majesty's good grace to reconcile Thailand."

While few expect Monday's march to win Thaksin a pardon, the campaign has threatened to re-ignite tension between the pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin factions.

Those who oppose Thaksin — the "yellow shirts" — began rallying more than three years ago, paving the way for his ouster. But when his allies were voted back into power, the yellow shirts protested again — eventually occupying the seat of government and Bangkok's two airports.

It was court rulings that did in both of those governments, paving the way for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to rise. But now the "red shirts" have periodically held demonstrations, calling for his resignation, saying he came to power illegally.

Thaksin supporters say petitions calling for his pardon have been signed by as many as five million Thais. Anti-Thaksin groups have questioned the figure. Abhisit's government has repeatedly dismissed the campaign as a publicity stunt.

Thaksin was accused of corruption and abuse of power during his time in office, but he remains popular among the urban and rural poor. Last year, the billionaire politician was convicted in absentia of violating a conflict-of-interest law and sentenced to two years in prison.

Much of his fortune remains frozen in Thai banks, his Thai passport has been canceled, and he has been barred from several countries following diplomatic pressure from Thailand.

His allies say he is still their hero and in need of help.

"Throughout history, Thai people who are in trouble and have no way out have asked the king for his mercy," said one of the group's leaders, Nattawut Sai-kua.

Hundreds of boxes of petitions were submitted to representatives from the Office of His Majesty's Private Secretary at the gate of the palace's walled compound. The king generally lives at a seaside palace and only visits the Grand Palace in Bangkok for formal functions.

The office later issued a statement, saying that it will seek the government's view on the petition in accordance with the law. The king is a constitutional monarch with moral authority rather than legal power, though Thais have long looked to him to guide the country through times of trouble.

Petitioning the monarchy for justice is part of Thai tradition that dates back hundreds of years to when a bell was hung outside the palace for subjects to ring if they had a grievance or a dispute that needed resolution.

But the campaign for Thaksin has the yellow shirts — many royalists among them — who say the move serves as more evidence that Thaksin is disloyal to the monarchy, a long-standing claim by his foes that Thaksin denies.

The government launched a campaign to "inform the public" that the petition has no legal grounds and is inappropriate.

That has angered Thaksin's rural supporters.

"The elite in Bangkok think they can silence us," said Chutima Meesakul, a 52-year-old mother of four from northeastern Sisaket province. "That is not going to happen anymore. We want Thaksin back so he can fix the economy and help Thailand move forward."

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