- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2008

BANGKOK | Thailand’s new prime minister evaded thousands of protesters blocking parliament on Tuesday and delivered his first key policy speech in the Foreign Ministry instead, promising to heal the turmoil that has ripped at the country and its tourism-based economy.

“The government has come into office at a time of conflict. This conflict has become the weakness of the country,” Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, Thailand’s third prime minister in four months, told lawmakers who included only his coalition members. Opposition members boycotted the session, but enough lawmakers showed up for a quorum.

Mr. Abhisit was forced to move and delay the speech by a day because of the anti-government protesters outside parliament — the same street-swamping demonstration tactics that his own supporters had used just before he came to power two weeks ago.

For months, Thailand has been rocked by rival groups of demonstrators who either support or protest ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, once one of the country’s richest men, who now lives in self-imposed exile after being forced from office in a 2006 coup.

The turmoil, along with the global financial crisis, has severely hurt tourism — most dramatically in a recent eight-day seizure of Bangkok’s two main airports — and threatens to push the country into recession.

Mr. Abhisit was formally named prime minister Dec. 17 in what many hoped would bring peace.

But Monday, thousands of Thaksin loyalists, who call themselves the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship, vowed to surround the parliament building until new elections are called.

The street protest echoed the last round of protests that helped bring Mr. Abhisit to power, when demonstrators opposed to Mr. Thaksin took over the prime minister’s residence and seized Bangkok’s two main airports for eight days.

In his speech Tuesday, Mr. Abhisit promised to “keep negotiating and mediating” to end the crisis.

Soon after he slipped into the Foreign Ministry to make his speech, the anti-government protesters abandoned their siege of that building. They said they might back off from their siege of parliament as well, as early as Wednesday, a government holiday.

“It’s not important how long we will gather. The important thing is that we have had the chance to express our view of the current government,” protest leader Chakrapob Penkhair said.

The Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship — also known as the “red shirts” because of their clothes — is an eclectic mix of Thaksin loyalists, farmers and laborers from the cities including the capital, Bangkok.

They have demanded the new government dissolve the legislature and call general elections, which they think the pro-Thaksin camp would win easily because of its strong rural base.

Mr. Abhisit’s party, which had been in opposition since 2001, heads a coalition that some analysts doubt is strong enough to last until the next general election in 2011.

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