- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2008

BANGKOK | Thailand’s government, beset by months of virtual paralysis, was again at a standstill Tuesday as thousands of demonstrators loyal to exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra surrounded parliament.

The protesters, vowing to stay until their demands for general elections are met, prevented the new government from delivering a mandated speech Monday outlining its key policies. The government said it would again try to end the blockade peacefully.

The standoff comes less than a month after the last government was forced from office following demonstrations that culminated in the eight-day seizure of Bangkok’s two main airports. The earlier protesters had been part of an anti-Thaksin alliance.

“I hope the prime minister can deliver the government’s policy today. However, the government has strictly ordered police not to use violent force against the protesters. We don’t want to start our government’s work with violence,” Deputy Prime Minister Thaugsuban told local television stations.

One of the protest leaders, Chakrapob Penkhair, told the Associated Press that the demonstrators were not barring entry to the parliament building.

“We still insist that the [prime minister] and parliament members should walk through us to get in. We guarantee their safety. By walking in, we can have a talk with him,” he said.

The latest demonstration was peaceful except for some brief scuffles between protesters and police Tuesday. But analysts say the continuing upheavals will further batter Thailand’s virtually moribund tourist industry and other economic sectors.

“We will keep negotiating and mediating,” Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told supporters. “I beg everyone, including all the lawmakers and officials, to dedicate our [New Year] holiday for the country in order to move our country forward.”

The third prime minister in four months, Mr. Abhisit was appointed in what many hoped would be the end of months of turbulent, sometimes violent, protests. His party had been in the opposition since 2001.

His speech is expected to include details of a $8.6 billion spending plan meant to jump-start the country’s ailing economy and tourism, the No. 1 foreign-exchange earner.

“There’s no confidence among tourists who want to visit Thailand,” said Prakit Chinamourphong, president of the Thai Hotel Association. “I just want to see the peaceful country without demonstrations so that the tourists will come back to Thailand again.”

The current protest group - which calls itself the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship and is known as the “red shirts” - is an eclectic mix of Thaksin loyalists and farmers from the countryside, as well as laborers from the cities, including the capital, Bangkok.

Several thousand of them converged Monday on the street leading to parliament, clapping and cheering as singers and protest leaders chastised the incoming government.

They have demanded that the new government dissolve the legislature and call general elections, which they believe would be won easily by the pro-Thaksin camp because of its strong rural support base.

Mr. Thaksin, once one of the country’s richest men, was ousted in a 2006 coup and remains in self-imposed exile.

The Oxford-educated, 44-year-old Mr. Abhisit was formally named prime minister Dec. 17. But despite his victory, Mr. Abhisit’s political future is not assured. He has cobbled together a weak coalition that many analysts expect could collapse before the next general election in 2011.

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