Thousands demand Thai prime minister's resignation

Monday, March 6, 2006

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Tens of thousands of protesters demanding the prime minister's resignation marched to his office Sunday night after a boisterous rally accusing Thaksin Shinawatra of corruption and abuse of power.

Leaders vowed the crowds would camp out in the streets until Thaksin quit, but today he again dismissed their calls.

"I will not resign because my resignation will not resolve anything," Thaksin told reporters.

Marchers on Sunday were stopped by a police line near Democracy Monument -- the site of bloody pro-democracy demonstrations in 1973, 1976 and 1992. But protest leaders negotiated with authorities and won permission to continue to Government House, the prime minister's office.

No major violence was reported, although some demonstrators broke through the police line before permission to pass was negotiated. A large number of police rushed to guard the perimeter of Government House, but Thaksin was believed to be in northeastern Thailand.

"We've made it here, and we're going to stay until Thaksin is out," protest leader Chaiwat Sinsuwong said.

The anti-Thaksin campaign swelled last month after the prime minister's family sold its controlling stake in telecommunications giant Shin Corp. to a Singapore state-owned investment company, netting $1.9 billion.

Critics allege the sale involved insider trading and tax dodges and complain that a key national asset is now in the hands of a foreign government.

The vast crowd of protesters stretched about two miles down broad avenues from Government House.

Speeches continued past midnight as demonstrators prepared to bed down for the night.

"The country has faced a crisis because of one person. The people will kick him out in a few days," said university lecturer Somkiat Pongpaibul.

The protesters described the gathering as their final showdown with the Thai leader.

Tens of thousands of protesters have been demanding Thaksin's resignation in regular weekend rallies, leading to the country's biggest political crisis since 1992, when street protests forced the ouster of a military-backed government.

Thaksin has instead called early parliamentary elections for April 2.

Opposition parties have vowed to boycott the ballot, which Thaksin -- whose populist policies have earned him widespread popularity in rural areas -- would almost certainly win.

At a pro-Thaksin rally on Friday, the prime minister offered to resign if he failed to secure more than half the votes in the April poll. If he won, he said, he would hold a national referendum on constitutional reforms within 15 months and then call fresh elections.

Thaksin said that instead of boycotting the election, voters should tick the "no vote" on their ballots to reflect their decision to abstain.

But the leading opposition parties reaffirmed that they would not take part.

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