Thais braced for strikes as unions join protest

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Thais are braced for widespread strikes in public services, as labor unions joined anti-government protesters to demand the prime minister's resignation in defiance of his emergency decree.

The Federation of State Enterprises comprising 43 unions planned strikes to crimp the supplies of power and water to government offices, and disrupt telecommunications and rail, road and air transport.

The impact was not immediately clear early this morning, but just the threat of a walkout by more than 200,000 workers has emboldened protesters who have laid siege on Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej's office since Aug. 26, refusing to leave until he steps down.

Somsak Kosaisuk, a protest leader, told reporters he is confident that the labor federation will cut off utilities to government offices, putting more pressure on Samak to resign.

The protesters "will not hold talks with the government or anyone," said Somsak, one of the five core leaders of the People's Alliance for Democracy, the group leading the protest. "The PAD will talk only after Samak has resigned," he said.

The People's Alliance for Democracy was formed in 2006 to demand the resignation of then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, eventually paving the way for the bloodless coup that ousted him. Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon, recently fled to Britain to escape corruption charges. The protesters say Samak is Thaksin's stooge and is running the government for him by proxy.

However, there is no indication that Samak will step down. He imposed emergency rule limited to the capital Bangkok on Tuesday. The move came after a week of political tensions exploded into rioting and street fighting early Tuesday between Samak's supporters and opponents that left one person dead and dozens injured.

Emergency rule gives the military the right to restore order, allows authorities to suspend civil liberties, bans public gatherings of more than five people and bars the media from reporting news that "causes panic."

Despite the decree, thousands of protesters remained camped on the streets in front of the prime minister's office, known as the Government House. On a makeshift stage, speakers took turns to denounce Samak.

"The state of emergency has ended up drawing a bigger crowd rather than scaring protesters away," said Sirinan Yodkongkha, a 45-year-old business woman, one of several thousand people camped out early Wednesday despite a morning downpour.

Scattered around the sprawling grounds, people rested in hammocks and helped themselves to a variety of Thai food, some distributed for free and some on sale at food stalls.

Water trucks continued to deliver new shipments of drinking water to keep protesters hydrated and hygiene trucks came to clean the portable toilets that were trucked into the compound several days ago.

Train services appeared to have been hit heard by the strike action, but the state-owned Thai Airways operated its flights on schedule early Wednesday.

At least 78 of 244 passenger trains were canceled, said Phairath Rojjaroenngam, a spokesman of the State Railway of Thailand. He said 45 of the 76 cargo trains that were to operate Wednesday were canceled.

Samak and the army chief, Gen. Anupong Paochindaboth have both said the emergency rule was imposed as a last resort, and stressed they wanted to avoid violence.

Anupong said that if troops are ordered into Bangkok's streets, they will be armed only with riot shields and batons.

Yet another challenge confronted Samak when the Election Commission recommended Tuesday that his People's Power Party be disbanded for fraud during elections last year. Samak and other party leaders would be banned from politics for five years if judicial authorities upheld the ruling, though other members could form a new party and retain power by winning new elections.

Democracy in Thailand has a history of fragility, with the military staging 18 coups since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Samak's faceoff with anti-government protesters is only the latest conflict in two years of political tumult.