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 10 Apr 2009

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Thai protesters resort to blocking Bangkok traffic

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has called a holiday for Friday, taking people off the street to give the authorities room to nip growing political unrest in the bud and provide better security at an Asian summit, reported Reuters.

Thailand has a holiday from Monday to Wednesday, April 13 to 15, when many of the anti-government protesters who have flooded into Bangkok will probably go home, and media said Abhisit hoped the extra day would help take the heat out of the situation.

One aim was to unclog the roads of the capital, where circulation was even worse than normal on Thursday after taxi drivers joined supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra in blocking main junctions to push their demand that Abhisit resign. Financial markets will open as usual.

Months of political turmoil in Thailand have hurt the country's image amongst investors and affected the important tourist industry.

As many as 100,000 Thaksin supporters had assembled on Wednesday in a sea of red in the area around Abhisit's office, Government House. On Friday the early numbers were put by police at no more than 5,000, but other flashpoints have appeared.

Abhisit has said the government would not use force to stop legitimate protests, and the demonstrations have for the most part been peaceful, but he was concerned about ensuring public safety, especially with the summit starting in the country on Friday.

In a televised address late on Thursday, he said he wanted to ease the inconvenience to the public caused by the protests, and to make it easier for government officials to identify ringleaders out to cause trouble.

"The road closures at key locations created traffic problems and public hardship, something that I would say cannot be possibly supported by democratically minded people," he said.

The Bangkok Post said Abhisit was "threatening to take off the kid gloves in dealing with protesters who paralysed Bangkok yesterday".

Traffic was flowing freely on many main roads early on Friday but media reports said pro-Thaksin taxi drivers and other 'red-shirted' activists were still blocking the important Victory Monument intersection and moving to disrupt other junctions.

Television pictures suggested the demonstrators were digging in at Victory Monument, even erecting tents to provide shelter.

Around 500 Thaksin supporters had gathered a few kilometres from the venue of the Asian summit in Pattaya, a resort town 150 km (90 miles) southeast of Bangkok. Protest leaders said more were arriving.

The summit had to be cancelled late last year because of political unrest when a pro-Thaksin government was in power. Abhisit's administration has billed the rescheduled event as a sign Thailand was getting back to normal.

In his address, Abhisit said he would not give in to demands to step down made by Thaksin, ousted in a military coup in 2006.

"I believe dissolving parliament under current circumstances is highly inappropriate as it is unlikely to lead to an election that helps promote a democratic image," he said.

Thaksin, a telecommunications billionaire, lives in self-imposed exile, but his absence has not healed the divisions between the royalist, military and business elite, who say he was corrupt, and the poor who benefited from his populist policies.

His supporters in the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) say Abhisit, elected by parliament in December, is a pawn of the army and called the mass rally in Bangkok this week in a bid to force new elections.




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