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Protesters send a peaceful message

THE Thai prime minister entered his office unhindered yesterday, easing fears of confrontation after 20,000 anti-government protesters surrounded the building the day before demanding parliament be dissolved and new elections held.

Hundreds of demonstrators allied with exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra sat outside the Government House compound for a second day, eating breakfast and listening to speakers, while taking turns on a makeshift stage to criticize the government. Hundreds of police in full riot gear looked on.

A car carrying current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva entered the Government House compound through a side gate without hindrance before leaving two hours later, witnesses said.

The latest protest ?? which comes a few days before Thailand hosts the annual summit of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations ?? was trying to show Thailand's Southeast Asian neighbors that Abhisit's government had no right to rule, said a protest leader, Jatuporn Phromphan.

"We want the world to know that this government has no legitimacy," Jatuporn said. "They have the support of the elite but they don't have the support of the people."

Thailand was plagued by political upheaval last year when demonstrators who opposed Thaksin's allies in the previous government occupied the seat of government for three months. They also shut Bangkok's two airports for eight days in November and December.

The protest ended only when a court ruled to oust Thaksin's allies for electoral fraud and Abhisit - whose party came in second in a December 2007 general election - was voted into office by parliament.

The protesters planned to march to the Foreign Ministry yesterday to call for the resignation of Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, Jatuporn said. Kasit was a vocal supporter of the anti-Thaksin demonstrators and publicly praised the airports siege as a "new innovation for public protests."

Protest leaders said that the demonstrators would continue to camp at Government House to press their demands, but would not break in.

Sukhum Nuansakul, a political scientist at Bangkok's Ramkhamhaeng University, said Thailand would remain unstable but that he did not expect things to turn violent.

"Both sides know they will lose public support if things turn violent. There is no catalyst for the situation to spiral out of control at this point," he said.

The latest protests have been organized by the Democratic Alliance against Dictatorship - commonly known as the "red shirts" because of their attire, which contrasts with the yellow shirts worn by their rivals, the self-styled People's Alliance for Democracy, who dominated last years' protests. The DAAD is an eclectic mix of Thaksin loyalists, rural farmers and laborers.

Thaksin remains popular among the rural majority for introducing social welfare plans. He now lives in self-imposed exile after being ousted for alleged corruption and abuse of power.


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