Thai PM rejects calls for his resignation

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The Independent Online

The Thai prime minister rejected calls for his resignation by thousands of anti-government protesters who ringed his office for a second day today in a boisterous rally.

Supporters of deposed former leader Thaksin Shinawatra have surrounded the government's main office since yesterday. The demonstrators say Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjavija's government came to power three months ago through illegal means and are demanding a dissolution of Parliament and fresh elections.

Police estimated about 30,000 people protested outside Government House yesterday evening.

Some 5,000 demonstrators gathered today as leaders took to the stage to denounce the government.

More were expected to join the throng in the evening to hear Thaksin, currently in self-imposed exile, make a televised broadcast from a secret location abroad.

The protest is the latest episode in Thailand's protracted political turmoil, which last year saw months of protests by Thaksin's opponents.

Abhisit said he does not expect the protests to turn violent. Other demonstrations have been generally peaceful.

"Whether to resign or not resign is a political matter within the system," Abhisit told reporters at his Democrat Party's headquarters. "Right now, the situation remains normal."

The prime minister avoided his office today but said he planned to return on Monday and rejected talk that his government will set up a temporary headquarters as the previous administration did last year to avoid protesters.

"There is no preparation for that," Abhisit told reporters. "We are still operating normally."

Thaksin's supporters are using the same people-power method as their rivals. Last year, anti-Thaksin protesters brought the previous government to a virtual standstill when they besieged the Government House for three months and occupied Bangkok's two main airports for one week, damaging Thailand's vital tourism industry.

The "red-shirts," as the pro-Thaksin supporters are commonly known because of their favoured colour, have vowed to remain outside Government House at least through the weekend. But they said they would not break into the compound as their rivals did.

"We will protest until the illegitimate government is gone. We have to stop them from causing more damage to Thai democracy," said a protest leader, Nattawut Sai-kua. "We will stay for as long as we need to get the job done."

Today's protest mixed fiery speeches with a carnival-like atmosphere. The demonstrators sang and danced on the streets during breaks from political speeches. Free food and beverages were provided.

Protesters parked trucks at intersections and blocked roads with cargo containers in an attempt to keep government workers out of the compound.

Abhisit was voted in by Parliament in December after a court dissolved the party leading the previous government, which was packed with Thaksin's allies.

Protesters say the court decisions were political and biased against the deposed leader's allies.

Thaksin, who remains popular in the countryside, fled into exile last year and has been convicted in absentia of violating a conflict of interest law.

He made a brief phone call that was broadcast to the rally last night. He said he was calling from Africa.

"I want to thank you, brothers and sisters, who are here to defend democracy," he said to loud cheers from protesters. "Without democracy, there will never be progress."

He was ousted in a 2006 military coup for alleged corruption and abuse of power.