Thai PM's allies hit street as debate begins
Monday, 01 September 2008

REUTERS, BANGKOK- More than 1,000 government supporters marched on Thailand's parliament on Sunday as lawmakers began a special debate on street protests threatening to topple Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej.

The group avoided areas of Bangkok where anti-government protesters are massed, including thousands who have occupied Samak's official compound since Tuesday and are vowing to stay until the prime minister quits.

Samak, who has said he would never bow to the demands of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), warned in his weekly radio address that his patience was wearing out.

"I am not afraid, but I am concerned about chaos in the nation," he said. "We cannot let the seizure of Government House continue indefinitely without taking action."

Samak gave no details of his meeting on Saturday with revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who holds enormous sway in Thailand and has intervened in past political disputes that threatened the country's stability.

The PAD, a motley group of businessmen, academics and activists whose campaign against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra led to his overthrow in a 2006 coup, accuses Samak of being an illegitimate proxy of Thaksin.

The PAD also proclaims itself to be a defender of the king against a supposed Thaksin plan to turn Thailand into a republic.

Both accusations are denied by Samak and Thaksin, who skipped bail on graft charges and fled to London earlier this month.

"SAMAK, FIGHT ON"

As the 10-hour debate in parliament got under way, more than 1,000 government supporters gathered outside, shouting slogans in support of Samak and denouncing the PAD.

"Samak, fight, fight. Samak, fight on; Samak, fight on," the crowd roared as police looked on.

The current unrest peaked on Friday when Bangkok police fired teargas and rubber bullets to repel an assault by 2,000 protesters on their headquarters. That same day, air and rail services were also hit by protests and strikes.

Thousands of foreign tourists remained stranded on the tourist island of Phuket on Sunday and it was not clear when Thailand's second busiest airport would reopen.

Samak condemned the closure of Phuket airport, the main international gateway to Thailand's southern beach resorts, and promised a review of airport security.

"They have been trained to handle terrorists but what happens? How have they allowed these people to encroach on the runway?" he said.

Samak said the scenes in Phuket threatened the country's lucrative tourist industry, which lured 14 million visitors last year and accounted for 6 percent of gross domestic product.

Several countries have already issued travel warnings for their citizens planning to travel to Thailand.

The prolonged political crisis has made Thailand's stock market one of the worst performers in Asia, down 23 percent since the protests began in May.

Analysts expected further losses when markets reopen on Monday amid fears of major unrest and policy paralysis at a time of slowing growth and the highest inflation in a decade.

"The unresolved political uncertainty could further depress the stock market, but shares have already been discounted quite a bit since early this year," Somjai Phagaphasvivat, an analyst at Thammasat University, told Reuters.

"A worst-case scenario is if the situation turned ugly with civil unrest between pro and anti-government groups," he said.

Nobody knows how the deadlock will be broken, but speculation is growing that Samak may call a snap election which his People Power Party would be almost certain to win on the back of massive support in the countryside.

Analysts expected Samak to hold on until Wednesday, when parliament will debate and probably pass a new national budget that would give ministers cash for election goodies.

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