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New PM reaches out to protesters

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September 20, 2008

Thailand Political Stalemate:
New PM reaches out to protesters

Thailand's government, seeking to ease a political standoff that has roiled the country for weeks, has initiated talks with the protest group occupying the prime minister's office compound, the country's new leader said Friday.

"We are all Thais. ... (I) don't bear any grudge against anyone because of our differences," said Somchai Wongsawat, who assumed his job Thursday after the House of Representatives voted him in a day earlier. "The differences can be worked out through a dialogue," the Associated Press quoted the new prime minister as saying.

Somchai, 61, succeeded Samak Sundaravej, whose resignation the protesters from the People's Alliance for Democracy had been demanding. Samak was forced from office by a court in a conflict of interest case not directly related to their demand.

Samak was targeted because he was accused of being a puppet of disgraced former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is facing several corruption cases but has gone into exile in England. The protest alliance says Somchai is also unacceptable because of his ties to Thaksin: He is the former leader's brother-in-law.

Somchai declined to give details of his dialogue initiative but said his administration was "in the process of negotiating" with the alliance's leaders.

One of the protest leaders, Chamlong Srimuang, said the government's outreach was a "positive signal" but also declined to elaborate, saying the process had just begun.

Unable to access Government House, occupied since Aug. 26, Somchai has set up a temporary office at Bangkok's old international airport.

Somchai has struck a conciliatory tone toward the protesters, a contrast to the belligerent stance of Samak, who insisted he would not bow to mob rule.

The newly elected premier has appealed for unity and reconciliation to mend Thailand's deep political divide, which began when anti-government protesters took to the streets in 2006 to demand Thaksin's resignation and paved the way for the Sept. 19 military coup that ousted him later that year.

The protest alliance complains that Western-style democracy gives too much power to the rural poor, who they say are susceptible to vote buying. They favor replacing an elected Parliament with one that is partially appointed to keep power in the hands of the educated elite.

On Friday evening, several thousands of government supporters held a rally to mark the second anniversary of the coup.

"We want to tell (the alliance) that their proposal to roll back democracy shows no respect to the majority of the people," said one of the protester leaders, Nattawut Sai-gua. "The public will never accept it."

The rally was held amid tight security in a field about a half-mile (1 kilometer) away from the anti-government protest site.

The last time government supporters and opponents held competing rallies, on Sep. 2,the two sides chased each other through the streets with sticks and slingshots and other makeshift weapons. One person was killed and dozens injured.

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