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Thai police brace for big anti-Thaksin rally

Written by: Staff

BANGKOK, Mar 5 (Reuters) More than 5,000 Thai police prepared to keep the peace today at another major rally where protest leaders threaten street protests to oust Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Organisers of the rally at a public square next to Bangkok's glittering Grand Palace said the protest, expected to begin at 1430 hrs ist and draw tens of thousands, would not be called off until Thaksin stepped down.

''We expect this to be a protracted protest,'' said Somchai Homlaor, a member of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a coalition of anti-Thaksin groups including students, academics, unions and civil society.

Among the protesters is 70-year-old former general Chamlong Srimuang, leader of a Buddhist group known as the ''Dharma Army'' which has vowed to remain on the streets until the premier is gone.

Chamlong, the man who brought Thaksin into politics more than a decade ago, led a successful ''people's power'' revolt against a military-led government in 1992 in which 50 people were killed.

PAD plans to march from the square to the nearby Democracy Monument, the focal point of bloody protests in the 1970s and 1990s that brought down past non-elected military governments, raising fears of violence at today's rally.

Police set up checkpoints around Bangkok to search for weapons in buses and trucks taking people to the demonstration.

''Police are under instructions not to confront protesters or stop them, even if they march to the Prime Minister's home or Government House,'' Police Colonel Pinij Maneerat told Reuters, referring to Thaksin's office in central Bangkok.

GROWING PROTESTS The self-styled ''CEO premier'', who won two landslide election victories in 2001 and last year, last month called a snap election for April 2 in a bid to defuse the growing campaign against him by Bangkok's middle classes.

The anti-Thaksin campaign run by PAD has caught fire since his relatives sold their stake in Shin Corp, the telecommunications empire he founded, to a Singapore state firm for a tax-free 1.9 billion dollars in late January.

Thaksin counter-attacked with his own Bangkok rally on Friday where 150-200,000 of his supporters, mostly from the countryside where he enjoys strong support, urged him to fight on.

Thaksin offered an olive branch to three main opposition parties boycotting the election, promising political reforms and a fresh poll up to 15 months after the April vote.

He also pledged to step down if his ruling Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party did not win more than half the votes cast next month.

The opposition rejected the offer and vowed to press ahead with the boycott of a poll they say cannot be fair because Thaksin controls political institutions meant to be independent.

In a bid to ratchet up the pressure on Thaksin, a group of 99 academics and senators petitioned Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej today to intervene by appointing a neutral interim Government to supervise the poll.

''We cannot see any possible solution, other than to seek your gracious discretion in invoking Article 7 of the Constitution that grants people an interim government to be charged with the responsibility of amending the constitution and supervise a fair election,'' the petition said.

Thaksin accuses the opposition parties of betraying democracy by boycotting the election and says the street campaign against him was simply mob rule while he follows the constitutional road.

''You cannot defy the voice of the people and you don't have the right to make decisions on their behalf,'' Thaksin told reporters yesterday.

Reuters PG GC1203

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