Thousands of Thai protesters surrounded parliament today and besieged other state buildings in what they said would be their final battle in a six-month street campaign against the government. Demonstrators began leaving Government House - the prime minister's cabinet offices which they have occupied since late August - and marched towards parliament a few blocks away in Bangkok's historic district.
A Metropolitan Police spokesman said 18,000 protesters from the People's Alliance for Democracy (Pad) had taken to the streets and managed to block all three roads leading to parliament. A joint parliament session of elected MPs and senators was postponed as politicians could not access the building, the house speaker Chai Chidchob said, calling for calm. "I promise that there will be no violence today, not a single drop of blood will be seen," he said on parliament radio. "I ask for all sides to stop the movement now. If you love the king, please return home."
The Pad began their protests on May 25, and aim to bring down the government elected in December, accusing it of being a corrupt proxy of the exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a September 2006 coup. A sea of protesters dressed in yellow shirts and headbands which symbolise loyalty to the monarchy marched through the government district today, many waving national flags and portraits of the deeply-revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Black-clad volunteer Pad security guards wielding homemade batons protected the crowd. Thai television showed one group of protesters moved from parliament to the finance ministry, while another group broke down a blockade on a road in front of the Bangkok Metropolitan Police headquarters. Officials have said about 2,000 police armed with shields are on duty to try to prevent a repeat of bloody street battles outside parliament on Oct 7 that left two protesters dead and nearly 500 people injured.
Pibhop Dhongchai, one of the Pad leaders, proclaimed the postponement of the parliament session a victory for their movement and vowed to push on. "Now the protesters are at the finance ministry to say the government has spent the people's money for their own interests," he said. A police officer at the ministry said about 300 protesters had turned up. The government spokesman Nattawut Saikuar said yesterday that about 2,000 soldiers were on standby but vowed authorities would not use force.
The Pad co-founder Sondhi Limthongkul said earlier that they could call on the crowds to besiege other locations including the stock exchange in their self-proclaimed "final battle" against the government. The Pad occupied Government House after massive rallies in late August, and called for their supporters to march on Monday to avenge the death of one of their supporters in a grenade attack at the protest site last week.
Pad leaders accuse the government of being behind that attack, which also injured 29 protesters, as well as a similar explosion that killed one more protester and injured seven on Saturday. The government has denied any involvement, and the prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, Mr Thaksin's brother-in-law, has vowed an investigation into the violence, although no arrests have been made so far. The prime minister is currently in Peru for a conference, but one of his deputy prime ministers called an urgent cabinet meeting today to discuss the protests.
Three small blasts also hit near Mr Limthongkul's Bangkok offices early today, causing minor damage but no injuries. Mr Thaksin fled the country in August this year but a power battle is raging between those who support the former leader and the old power elite in the military, palace and bureaucracy who want to purge Thailand of his influence. *AFP