Thai protesters take aim at utilities, airline

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Protesters seeking to topple Thailand's prime minister and mobs of his supporters clashed early Tuesday, leaving one dead and dozens injured hours after state workers sympathetic to anti-government demonstrators threatened to cut essential services.

A coalition of 43 unions representing workers at state companies including water, electric, phone and the national airline said they would cut off services to the government starting Wednesday in support of the anti-government protests. They already were disrupting rail service and planned to cut back public bus transportation.

"The government has beaten protesters, and that justifies our retaliating by stopping water, telephone service and electricity to some government agencies," Sawit Kaewwan, secretary-general of the State Enterprise Workers Relations Confederation, or SERC, said at a news conference.

The labor federation said 200,000 members would stop work in support of an alliance of right-wing protesters that has occupied Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej's office for a week, trying to bring down the government.

Early Tuesday morning, supporters and opponents of Samak clashed after pro-government protesters attempted to march on the prime minister's office compound, which has been occupied since Aug. 26 by the People's Alliance for Democracy.

Government supporters pushed through a police line and battled alliance members. Both sides were armed with sticks and clubs.

One person died from severe head injuries and four others were in serious condition, two with gunshot wounds, said Dr. Petchapon Kumtonkitjakarn of the Erawan Medical Center. He said 37 people were being treated for injuries at several hospitals.

The People's Alliance for Democracy claims the government is corrupt and too close to ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and recently fled to Britain to escape an array of corruption charges. The same group organized the massive anti-Thaksin demonstrations in 2006 that helped spark the bloodless coup.

The alliance and their sympathizers -- monarchists, the military and the urban elite -- complain that Western-style democracy with one-man, one-vote gives too much weight to Thailand's rural majority, who protesters say are susceptible to vote buying that breeds corruption. They have proposed a system under which most lawmakers would be appointed rather than elected.

The prime minister has repeatedly insisted he will not bow to pressure by resigning or dissolving parliament to call new elections.

"I am sure that I love this country as much as anybody," Samak said at a joint session of the upper and lower houses of parliament convened to debate solutions to the deadlock. "But I love democracy much more, more than anyone who told me to resign."

Sawit and others laid out plans for the work stoppage by state employees but did not say how long the action would last.

Public bus workers will halt service on 80 percent of Bangkok's 3,800 buses, with the remainder running for free, he said.

Workers for state-owned Thai Airways plan to delay flights Wednesday, said Somsak Manop, deputy chief of Thai Airways International labor union.

Hundreds of employees from the State Railways of Thailand continued a strike Monday that has halted service on 93 train lines, cutting off most long-distance service between Bangkok and the far-northern and southern parts of the country, said spokesman Phairath Rojjaroenngam. More than half of the 76 cargo trains scheduled Monday were also not running.

There was no schedule for restoring service, which has been disrupted since the strike started Friday.

Three airports in southern Thailand were also forced to close by protesters this weekend.

"If they continue to defiantly hold on to power even after the general strike on Sept. 3, the alliance will have no choice but to step up the pressure on them," Suriyasai Katasila, one of the protest leaders, said of the government.

Protesters began occupying the prime minister's office on Aug. 26 and have tried block streets in the capital. The alliance has been able to call out as many as 30,000 supporters, according to an early government estimate, to besiege Samak's office and blockade other public areas.

Sondhi Limthongkul, the senior protest leader, said he liked the idea of shutting down public services even it might anger and inconvenience many Thais.

"I think it's one way of putting pressure on the government," Sondhi told reporters. "At the end of the day, they will see whether it's me who is the problem or Mr. Samak. All we want is Mr. Samak to go. When Samak goes, we stop."

At the prime minister's residence, several thousand protesters spread out across courtyards, gardens and park benches, cheering and clapping as speaker after speaker called for Samak to resign.

Flanked by the Thai national flag, huge photos of the king and queen and "most wanted" posters of Thaksin and his wife, protesters said they had no grand scheme to reinvent government. They just want the current government tossed out.

"The Cabinet must resign and they all must be imprisoned," said Thiwa Thongkaew, a 43-year-old office worker from the tourist resort of Krabi.

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