February 27, 2006 in Nation/World

Thai opposition continues

Ellen Nakashima Washington Post
Associated Press photo

Thai protesters demonstrate to oust Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra at Sanam Luang in Bangkok on Sunday. Thaksin is accused of widespread corruption and abuse of power.
(Full-size photo)

At a glance

Class divisions

The rally’s largely middle-class composition reflected the deep divisions in Thailand between rural poor and urban elite. Thaksin has deftly exploited that gap with programs to lend money to poor villages, relieve farm debt and allow any citizen access to a doctor’s care for 75 cents per visit.

BANGKOK, Thailand – Tens of thousands of protesters waving Thai flags and holding signs that read “Give back our country” rallied Sunday to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been accused of corruption and abuse of power.

The protesters, who included busloads of Buddhist monks and nuns, turned out despite Thaksin’s surprise move Friday to dissolve parliament and call snap elections for April 2. Analysts had expected his move would help deflate the opposition’s campaign to oust him.

“Thaksin is the nation’s problem!” hollered Sondhi Limthongkul, a media magnate and prominent Thaksin critic, addressing the crowd from a giant stage. His television talk show was forced off the air in September, and he mounted several anti-Thaksin rallies in January and February.

Sondhi shouted Thaksin’s name repeatedly as he stood beneath a giant banner depicting the prime minister as a cartoon monster with six arms, eating the Thai flag.

“Get out!” the crowd roared in response each time, with the golden spires of Bangkok’s Grand Palace complex forming the background.

The peaceful rally was the latest in a series of protests drawing tens of thousands of participants, mostly from the urban elite. Just over a year ago, Thaksin capped a four-year term in office with a landslide re-election victory, largely on the strength of shrewd populist policies and adroit handling of the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami. But the protests have shown he is not invincible, analysts said.

“If the anti-Thaksin coalition is organized, determined and has resolve, they can make a difference,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University. “They’re committed to overthrowing Thaksin. This is clear.”

The rally began in the afternoon, and organizers from the People’s Alliance For Democracy promised to continue it until dawn. The demonstration did not draw the 100,000 supporters its organizers had predicted, some analysts said, but according to Thitinan its size and noise were still significant.

“We will sleep here. We won’t go anywhere,” vowed Chamlong Srimuang, 70, a retired general and Buddhist ascetic. He joined a coalition of nonparliamentary groups in leading the rally, accompanied by 3,000 members of his Dharma Army wearing blue denim farmers’ garb.

Although the opposition campaign has weakened his support, Thaksin remains popular in the countryside, where 70 percent of Thais – and the vast majority of voters – live.

His dissolution of parliament and call for elections in just over a month has left the three opposition parties in a dilemma. If they run, short of money and candidates, they know they cannot win, analysts said. If they boycott the election, which they are considering, they risk undermining their credibility in voters’ eyes.

Sunday, they could agree only to ask Thaksin to form a panel to recommend amendments to the constitution. They wanted his answer today. A spokesman for his party, Thai Rak Thai, or Thais Love Thais, said Thaksin would consider the request.

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