BANGKOK, THAILAND // Thailand's government was forced to change the venue of its key policy speech today as thousands of demonstrators loyal to the exiled former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, surrounded parliament, extending months of political turmoil. Several hundred protesters also blocked the foreign ministry, where the government and lawmakers moved to deliver the policy statement. As proceedings began inside, police and protesters confronted each other. Some ministry staffers were seen climbing small ladders to get over a fence to flee the compound.
The protesters, vowing to ring the parliament building until their demands for new general elections are met, prevented the government from delivering its mandated policy speech yesterday. The government said it would try to peacefully end the blockade. The standoff comes less than a month after the last government was forced from office following six months of demonstrations that culminated in the eight-day seizure of Bangkok's two main airports. The earlier protesters had been part of an anti-Thaksin alliance.
"I hope the prime minister can deliver the government's policy today. However, the government has strictly ordered police not to use violent force against the protesters. We don't want to start our government's work with violence," said the deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban. One of the protest leaders, Chakrapob Penkhair, said the demonstrators were not barring entry to the parliament building. "We still insist that the PM and parliament members should walk through us to get in. We guarantee their safety. By walking in, we can have a talk with him," he said.
The latest demonstration was peaceful except for some brief scuffles between protesters and police today. But analysts say the continuing upheavals will further batter Thailand's virtually moribund tourist industry and other economic sectors. "We will keep negotiating and mediating," said the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. "I beg everyone, including all the lawmakers and officials, to dedicate our [New Year] holiday for the country in order to move our country forward."
The third prime minister in four months, Mr Abhisit, was formally named prime minister on Dec 17 in what many hoped would be the end of months of turbulent, sometimes violent, protests. However, his party - which had been in opposition since 2001 - heads a coalition that some analysts doubt is strong enough to last until the next general election in 2011. His speech is expected to include details of a 300 billion baht (Dh31.5b) spending plan meant to jump-start the country's ailing economy and tourism.
"There's no confidence among tourists who want to visit Thailand," said Prakit Chinamourphong, the president of the Thai Hotel Association. "I just want to see the peaceful country without demonstrations so that the tourists will come back to Thailand again." The current protest group - which calls itself the Democratic Alliance against Dictatorship and is known as the "red shirts" - is an eclectic mix of Thaksin loyalists, farmers from the countryside as well as labourers from the cities including the capital Bangkok.
Mr Thaksin, once one of the country's richest men, was ousted in a 2006 coup and remains in self-imposed exile. Several thousand of his supporters converged Monday on the street leading to Parliament, clapping and cheering as singers and protest leaders chastised the incoming government. "We are here for democracy," said Narumol Thanakarnpanich, a 53-year-old university professor from Bangkok. "We want a new government." They have demanded the new government dissolve the legislature and call general elections, which they believe would be won easily by the pro-Thaksin camp because of its strong rural support base.
The scene resembled events in recent weeks, when yellow-shirted protesters, opposed to Mr Thaksin, first took over the prime minister's residence and then the two main airports. That group is aligned with Thailand's educated elite who viewed Mr Thaksin's six years in power as deeply corrupt and a threat to their interests. The sit-ins staged by both sides have shared the same relaxed festival feel, with security forces largely leaving the protesters alone.