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Thailand faces huge new protest, PM issues warning

AUTHORITIES braced for a massive demonstration today in Bangkok that could pose a threat to Thailand's four-month-old government, and the prime minister vowed to crack down on any violence.

Anti-government activists hoped to draw tens of thousands of supporters in the biggest demonstration since rival activists shut down the city's airports in November.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, whose car was attacked and its window smashed by anti-government protesters yesterday as he rode in it, called on all parties to keep the demonstration peaceful. He said his government would take any necessary measures to ensure they do so.

"There are some groups which want violence so it's everyone's job to make sure it does not happen," Abhisit said. "I have tried to tell those who want to express themselves to rally peacefully."

Abhisit spoke hours after two dozen protesters surrounded his car and smashed the window as he left a Cabinet meeting in the coastal resort of Pattaya, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) south of Bangkok, where Asian leaders will gather Friday for a summit.

Earlier, Abhisit went on national television to vow that his government would not "allow a civil war or a people's revolution," adding in the comments late Monday that "if the situation leads to a riot, the government cannot stand still."

The protests are the latest episode in Thailand's long-running political turmoil, a tug-of-war between mostly rural supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and supporters of the current government dominated by the urban elite. Each is known by the color of shirts they wear at rallies, red for pro-Thaksin and yellow for anti-Thaksin.

Last year, yellow-shirted protesters demonstrated for months in an effort to force Thaksin's allies from power, taking over the prime minister's office known as Government House and laying siege to the country's main airports. They ended their protests in December after courts removed two pro-Thaksin prime ministers from office and dissolved their parties, paving the way for Abhisit to take power in a parliamentary vote in December.

The red shirts say his rule is illegitimate and demand fresh elections.

Abhisit faces the same challenge of his predecessors - whether to crack down on protesters and risk a wider backlash or to stand aside and hope the movement loses steam.

Michael Montesano, a researcher at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said Abhisit's best strategy is a firm line against violence while allowing street protests to continue. His biggest risk is appearing weak, which would embolden anti-government protesters and could prompt a military coup, Montesano said.

"As long as he keeps his cool, they cannot threaten his hold on Parliament," Montesano said. "If the army decides his soft approach is somehow spineless and he isn't keeping order, it could turn on him."

Political scientist Thitinan Pongsidhirak said Abhisit should start a dialogue with the red shirts and ensure "a sense of fairness" by prosecuting the yellow shirts responsible for taking over the airport and Government House.

Red shirts have been rallying nightly at Government House since March 26.

They have called for tens of thousands of supporters to join a Wednesday march from Government House to the home of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's top adviser, Prem Tinsulanonda, whom they accuse of masterminding the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin.

Thaksin, who has been addressing the rallies almost nightly via video link from exile, was ousted for alleged corruption and convicted last year for abuse of power but retains widespread support among the rural poor majority that benefited from his populist policies.

Prem has denied the accusations, but the rare public criticism of a king's privy councilor broke a taboo in Thailand where members of the monarchy and their aides are highly revered.

The last rally outside Prem's home in July 2007 turned into a riot in which more than 200 people were injured.

More than 4,000 police will be deployed outside the house and the prime minister's office today, said Bangkok Police Chief Lt. Gen. Worapong Chiewpreecha.


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