- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008

BANGKOK | Thailand’s embattled leader struggled to keep the peace and his grip on power Tuesday after declaring a state of emergency that was openly flouted by thousands of protesters against the government in the capital.

While Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej sought to tamp down newly violent unrest pitting largely prosperous urban forces against the country’s impoverished rural majority, he also was hit by an electoral commission finding that could disband his party and bar him from politics.

Mr. Samak said he had no choice but to impose emergency rule in Bangkok after a week of political tensions exploded into overnight rioting and street fighting between his supporters and opponents that left one person dead and dozens injured.

His decree gives the military the right to restore order, allows authorities to suspend civil liberties, bans public gatherings of more than five people and bars the media from reporting news that “causes panic.”

Mr. Samak and the army chief, Gen. Anupong Paochinda, both said authorities viewed emergency rule as a last resort and stressed they wanted to avoid violence.

Tensions remained high as thousands of protesters, demanding Mr. Samak’s resignation, defied the ban on assembly by staying camped out at the prime minister’s official compound, known as Government House, which they seized seven days earlier.

As a precaution, City Hall ordered 435 public schools closed for three days, while some international private schools opted to shut for a week. The U.S. and other nations warned their citizens of the danger of violence in the capital.

A labor federation for state employees said 200,000 of its members would go on strike to support the protesters. Their walkout could disrupt train, bus and air service and cut electricity and water to some government buildings, said Sawit Kaewwan, secretary-general of the State Enterprise Workers Relations Confederation, which comprises 43 unions for state employees.

Yet another challenge confronted Mr. Samak when the Election Commission recommended Tuesday that his People’s Power Party be disbanded for fraud during elections last year. Mr. Samak and other party leaders would be banned from politics for five years if judicial authorities upheld the ruling, although other members could form a new party and retain power by winning new elections.

The group behind the anti-Samak protests, the People’s Alliance for Democracy, was formed in 2006 to demand the resignation of then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, eventually paving the way for the bloodless coup that ousted him. Mr. Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon, recently fled to Britain to escape corruption charges.

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