Thousands Rally Against Thai Leader
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
BANGKOK, March 14 -- Tens of thousands of protesters marched Tuesday to the offices of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, demanding that he resign over allegations that he improperly enriched himself in a massive telecommunications deal.
The demonstration was one of the largest since long-simmering grievances among Bangkok's middle class erupted two months ago when Thaksin's family sold its controlling shares in the Shin Corp. business empire for $1.9 billion to a Singapore investment company.
Although the rally ended peacefully, Thaksin warned he would declare a state of emergency and call troops into the streets if subsequent demonstrations turned violent.
But the army commander, Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, dismissed the immediate need for an emergency decree after reviewing the situation with other top military officers. Sonthi, speaking to reporters, said such an extreme measure would likely damage Thailand's image abroad.
Waving colored flags and placards emblazoned with caricatures of the prime minister, the protesters proceeded slowly through the heart of official Bangkok, past ministries, army headquarters and the capital's Democracy Monument, chanting, "Thaksin, get out!"
Many had camped overnight on the royal plaza near the gold towers of the Grand Palace, the site of anti-Thaksin rallies on each of the previous nine evenings. By mid-morning, they had marched about a mile through streets heavy with police and crammed the boulevards surrounding the compound where Thaksin's cabinet was meeting.
Sondhi Limthongkul, a media tycoon who launched the protest movement late last year when he accused Thaksin of corruption and abuse of power, urged the festive crowd to intensify pressure for the prime minister's ouster by remaining in the streets.
"We will stay here until he resigns," he shouted from atop a truck in front of the compound's gates. "If he won't resign, more people will come."
Police estimated that as many as 40,000 people joined the demonstration, while organizers put the number at close to 200,000.
Thaksin, meanwhile, was campaigning in the countryside, where he remains widely popular. He has called for parliamentary elections next month in a bid to defuse the crisis. Opposition parties have announced a boycott of the balloting on the grounds that Thaksin's likely victory would lend him undeserved legitimacy.
The rally attracted thousands of students, shop owners, professionals and employees of public utilities, who oppose government plans to privatize state-owned enterprises. Many in the crowd also wore yellow bandanas, hats and visors, donning the color associated with Thailand's royal family. Demonstrators accuse Thaksin of lack of respect for the country's revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
At the front of the protest were hundreds of members of the Dharma Army, part of an ascetic sect that broke away from mainstream Buddhism. Shaven-headed, blue-clad adherents waved orange flags urging, "Change Through Peace."
The group's leader, former Maj. Gen. Chamlong Srimuang, gave a brief, restrained speech from atop a truck. Addressing his remarks to government ministers inside the compound, he urged them: "Tell your boss to come back from up country and sign the resignation papers. Whenever he signs the papers, we will leave immediately."
Thaksin has repeatedly rebuffed the calls for his removal and argued that voters should decide his fate. He has adamantly rejected the corruption charges, saying the sale of the Shin Corp. stock was legal and a private matter.
Apichart Poomee, 40, a hotel employee, said he disagreed so strongly with this claim that he has been protesting consistently since early February.
"Thaksin has cheated the country and the nation. He has built his power by making money out of his policies," said Apichart, wearing a yellow headband and waving a small Thai flag.
"I've seen a lot of changes in the country and I've seen a lot of tyrants," said Pranee Thanachanan, 79, a retired university dean wearing a yellow baseball cap. "This is the worst I've ever seen."