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Thai activists gather for mass protest

Anti-government protesters said they were massing activists in the Thai capital for their biggest rally yet.

Anti-government protesters arrive outside Government House in Bangkok, Thailand on Nov 23 2008.
Anti-government protesters arrive outside Government House in Bangkok, Thailand on Nov 23 2008.

BANGKOK, THAILAND // Anti-government protesters said today they were massing activists in the Thai capital for their biggest rally yet in a final showdown with the government, as the military deployed soldiers to deter violence. The protest group, which calls itself the People's Alliance for Democracy (Pad), planned to rally more than 100,000 supporters tonight, but declined to give details of the rally or its timing. They were expected to try to march on Parliament overnight to disrupt a session of lawmakers the following day.

"It will be D-Day. This will be our final push to bring down the government," said protester Chokchuang Chutinaton, 64, as he and fellow protesters gathered at the Government House compound that includes the prime minister's offices. Alliance protesters have camped out the Government House compound since August and are demanding that the prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, resign. They accuse him of being a proxy for his brother-in-law, the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup for alleged corruption and abuse of power.

The protesters have been attacked several times by small bombs and grenades, including a blast on Thursday that killed one person and wounded 29, and another on Saturday that injured eight. No one took responsibility for the explosions. The Thai military said it was deploying more than 2,000 soldiers today to deter violence. Police will be responsible for keeping the situation under control, but the army will be on standby to help if needed, army spokesman Col Sansern Khaewkamnerd said.

"If the police ask for help we are ready. We have prepared more than 2,000 soldiers to support them," Mr Sansern said in telephone interview. Bangkok police chief Gen Jongrak Jutanon said 2,400 police would be stationed outside parliament and said he hoped the protesters would not "obstruct members of Parliament from doing their duty." The parliament building stands about a 1km from Government House, where the protesters were gathering. The last time the protest group marched on parliament, street battles with police left two dead and hundreds wounded. The Oct 7 clashes were the country's worst political violence in more than a decade. Nearly 100,000 protesters were involved in that march, which has been the biggest so far.

"We expect for more than 100,000 supporters for the rally today," Pad spokesman Parnthep Wongpuapan said. The alliance includes royalists, wealthy and middle-class urban residents and union activists, all of whom feel threatened by political and social change. They claim Thailand's electoral system is susceptible to vote buying, and that the rural majority, the Thaksin camp's power base, is not sophisticated enough to cast ballots responsibly.

They propose replacing an elected parliament with one that is mostly appointed, a move critics charge is meant to keep power in the hands of the educated, urban elite. Key protest leader Chamlong Srimuang told about 2,000 supporters at Government House today that the upcoming rally was intended to finish off this illegal government. "If we cannot drive out this illegal government then we will give up and let them do whatever they want to the country. Everyone in Pad will go home," he said.

* AP