Sunday, 31 August 2008

Thai protesters defy orders to end siege


Agence France-Presse

BANGKOK - Thousands of Thai protesters trying to bring down the prime minister again defied orders Thursday to end their siege of government offices, forming human shields to protect their leaders from arrest.

The courts have ordered them to clear out of Government House immediately and issued arrest warrants for nine of the protest leaders, but the alliance against Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej remained defiant.

"If nine of us are arrested, you must continue to rally here," said 73-year-old Chamlong Srimuang, one of the key figures in the months-long campaign by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) to force Samak to resign.

Rumours spread overnight that the thousands of police massed outside the compound in downtown Bangkok were preparing to enter and force the demonstrators out.

"It's our victory that police did not storm and arrest us last night," Chamlong told cheering protesters, who have spent two nights and a day camped out sheltering from the rain and sun under umbrellas.

The PAD movement, which has been protesting since May, says Samak is a mere figurehead running the country on behalf of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and is barred from holding office.

PAD protests helped lead to the putsch that unseated the populist Thaksin, and the entry to government of his ally Samak has infuriated the country's old power elites in the military and palace.

Samak, who was elected last December, has said he will use a "soft and gentle" approach with the group, and despite tense moments overnight police standing guard around Government House kept a low-key presence.

"At this moment there are more than 10,000 protesters inside," deputy government spokesman Nuttawut Saikua told AFP.

An AFP correspondent at the scene said many police appeared to have left the enclosure overnight, while the PAD has installed their own checkpoints with volunteer guards searching everybody trying to enter the rally site.

The government's patience with the group appears to be wearing thin, and a poll Wednesday showed that the majority of Bangkok residents were also fed up with the antics of the group claiming loyalty to the revered monarchy.

The crisis began early Tuesday when up to 35,000 anti-government demonstrators stormed a state-run TV station and surrounded at least three ministries before finally invading the grounds of Government House.

A senior police officer, who did not want to be named as he was not authorised to talk to the media, said the Metropolitan Police top brass were planning their next steps.

"They will prepare documents and hopefully by early afternoon police will enter Government House with a court injunction and arrest warrants to meet with protest leaders," the officer told AFP.

The Criminal Court on Wednesday issued arrest warrants for nine people, including the five PAD leaders, on charges including treason -- which carries the death penalty -- and illegal assembly.

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