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Thai PM's supporters arrive, promise no violence

By Super

BANGKOK, Mar 17: A 20,000-strong ''caravan of the poor'' arrived in Bangkok on Friday in support of beleaguered Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, although its leaders promised to steer clear of crowds outside his office baying for his head.

''We don't want to clash with them,'' said Attarit Singhlor, head of the 3-km convoy of trucks and home-made tractors which snaked its way slowly down from the impoverished northeast as the political crisis in the capital deepened.

''We'll make statements and express our requests for the prime minister to help on land, land deeds and funding for organic fertiliser projects, then leave Bangkok,'' he said.

Thaksin himself, who remains defiant in the face of a middle-class metropolitan movement to kick him out, hit the provincial campaign trail once again, rallying his core rural support base for snap elections called on April 2.

However, the Election Commission says the poll, which Thaksin has billed as a referendum on his continued leadership, may have to be postponed as a boycott by the three main opposition parties is likely to render it constitutionally unviable.

The political crisis, which has caused the stock market and baht to wobble, is now raising long-term economic concerns, with ratings agencies looking at growth forecasts and companies delaying public flotations or investment projects.

Singapore has become a particular target of a nationalist streak within the anti-Thaksin movement following the January takeover of Thai telecoms giant Shin Corp, which Thaksin founded, by its state investment arm, Temasek.

Hundreds of protesters, initially outraged that Thaksin's family had paid no tax in selling their 1.9 billion dollars Shin Corp stake, were due to march through central Bangkok today to promote a boycott of all things Singaporean.

EFFIGIES According to Chainid Ngow-Sirimanee, head of builder Property Perfect PCL the campaign is already having some direct impact, with Singapore firms delaying decisions on potential investments in the Thai property sector worth 256 million dollars.

DBS Group Holdings, which had been thought keen on raising its stake in Thailand's TMB Bank PCL, had yet to make up its mind on whether to go ahead, a spokesman said. Analysts attributed the delay to Thai politics.

Protest leaders say they will burn effigies of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife, Temasek boss Ho Ching, outside the Singapore embassy, the strongest symbolism to date in weeks of peaceful demonstrations.

However, with more than 100,000 people hitting the streets this week against Thaksin, the royal palace and army are worried about a repeat of the civil unrest and bloodshed that broke out in a ''people power'' uprising against military rule in 1992.

''The army is concerned and feels uncomfortable. We've been taught to be patriotic, to think of national unity and to keep peace and order,'' army chief Sonthi Boonyaratglin told reporters.

''We can only pray for the situation to ease. But our stand is the same as before, which is to remain neutral.'' Both Thaksin and his critics have made noises about wanting talks to resolve the crisis, but there appears little to discuss given that one side wants him out, and the other wants him in.

''To solve this crisis, the prime minister must resign,'' said maverick Buddhist and protest leader Chamlong Srimuang, repeating his mantra of the past six weeks. ''We have moved only one step forward. How could we retreat?'' Thaksin has extended an olive branch in the form of an offer to set up a neutral body to reform the constitution and hold another election within 15 months.

But the opposition, which accuses him of corruption, cronyism and undermining the checks and balances of the 1997 charter, rejected the idea, saying no panel he appointed could be neutral.


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