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Thousands rally against Thai prime minister

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    BANGKOK, Feb 26 (Reuters) Buddhist monks and nuns of the ''Dharma Army'' led thousands of people at a demonstration against embattled Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra today as opposition parties failed to agree to boycott a snap election.

    ''Give our country back,'' and ''Ethics first'', they chanted against Thaksin, a former tycoon accused of undermining the checks and balances of the constitution and tailoring policy to suit his family's business.

    The atmosphere was good natured, at least in the early stages, despite worries the rally might turn violent after the campaign against Thaksin was joined a week ago by retired general Chamlong Srimuang, the man who brought him into politics.

    The ascetic 70-year-old Chamlong, leader of a successful but bloody ''people's power'' revolt against a military-led government in 1992, began the rally with 3,000 members of his ''Dharma Army'' protesters clad in the dark blue shirts of farmers.

    ''Thaksin Out,'' said one placard as they walked barefoot for 3 km (2 miles) in 35 degree Celsius (95F) heat to the rally site in front of Bangkok's glittering Grand Palace.

    ''We don't want violence,'' Chamlong told Reuters Television.

    ''But if it happens, it will be caused by government officials and the government will lose.'' As the rally picked up pace, the opposition Democrat, Chart Thai and Mahachon parties failed to agree on the Democrats' call for a boycott of the snap election called on April 2.

    They agreed only to call on Thaksin to sign a pact with them tomorrow to form a neutral body to recommend amendments to the constitution.

    REFORM DEMAND ''The best solution for the current political crisis is to amend the constitution to pave the way for political reform,'' said Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva. He did not say what the parties would do if Thaksin turned down the demand.

    The three opposition parties agreed yesterday to work together against Thaksin, who called the April 2 election a year after winning a second landslide victory and expects to ride rural support back into power.

    A boycott would reinforce the campaign against Thaksin and risk spilling political turmoil into the streets of a country with a long history of coups and still relatively new to democracy.

    The organisers of the rally, a coalition of groups outside parliament, had hoped to draw 100,000 people to today's rally.

    But Friday's announcement of a snap election would probably mean only about 50,000 protesters -- which would still be the biggest anti-government demonstration in 14 years -- would turn out, national police spokesman Ajiravid Subarnbhesaj said.

    The campaign run by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has caught fire since Thaksin's relatives sold Shin Corp, the telecommunications empire he founded, to a Singapore state firm for a tax-free $1.9 billion last month.

    The PAD has taken up Chamlong's call for today to be the start of a mass demonstration which should continue until Thaksin quits.

    ''Trust me, this is the right way,'' Chamlong said. ''The important thing is people need to come to the rally. The greater the number of people either on Feb. 26, 27 or 28, the higher chance we have of winning.'' Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) said the opposition would betray democracy if it boycotted the election, which Thaksin is expected to win, albeit with fewer than the 377 of the 500 lower house seats he won a year ago.

    ''This means the opposition doesn't believe in democracy, in the existing rules of the constitution, drafted by the people,'' said party spokesman Suranand Vejjajiva. ''The opposition is tearing up the People's Constitution.'' REUTERS OM PC1721

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