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Anti-Thai PM protest draws 50,000 to Bangkok malls

Written by: Staff

BANGKOK, Mar 29 (Reuters) As many as 50,000 people joined a campaign to oust Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra at Bangkok's main shopping district today, despite polls suggesting a growing public weary of weeks of street rallies.

A planned three-day demonstration is a last throw of the dice before Sunday's general election for the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the ad hoc coalition bent on driving the billionaire telecoms tycoon from office.

Police shut 800 metres of a six-lane highway as the crowd they estimated at 50,000 gathered outside some of the capital's glitziest malls, although feared city-wide gridlock did not materialise as many commuters left the car at home.

However, there was unusual congestion on elevated tollways and outer ring roads as drivers tried to avoid the area, and three malls in the protest area closed for two days.

Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party, which won 377 of 500 seats in parliament in a February 2005 general election, is expected to win another thumping majority on Sunday.

However, an opposition boycott means the result is likely to be constitutionally invalid, since unopposed TRT candidates in staunchly anti-Thaksin seats will struggle to win a minimum 20 per cent threshold of eligible votes.

The strategy of targeting top-end consumers could backfire for the PAD, with polls suggesting only 20 percent of people in and around the capital support rallies against Thaksin, whom critics accuse of corruption, cronyism and abuse of power.

''The very people who the PAD is trying to attract are the prospective victims of the disruptive downtown demonstrations,'' Chulalongkorn University lecturer Thitinan Pongsudhirak wrote in the Bangkok Post.

On Sunday, as 10,000 anti-Thaksin protesters marched through the same district, furious motorists and shoppers caught in the congestion said they supported the campaign but thought disrupting ordinary lives was too much.

In its latest ABAC poll, conducted on Monday, Assumption University said only 26 per cent of Bangkok people thought Thaksin should quit, compared to 27 per cent two days previously and 48 per cent three weeks earlier.

The poll had 42 per cent of 1,116 respondents saying Thaksin should stay, compared to a low of 26 per cent on March 6.

ECONOMIC VICTIMS Thaksin admitted the crisis was hitting the economy but said foreign investors would not panic about a political hiccup.

''Democracy in Thailand is still intact and those in the advanced economies understand our situation,'' he said. The economy should still grow at 5 per cent this year if stability returned after the April 2 poll, he added.

However, few see that happening and economists are starting to trim their annual growth forecasts. The main stock market index has slipped 4.5 per cent since the start of February.

In the short term, government spokesman Surapong Suebwonglee said the PAD's mall protest could cost businesses up to 300 million baht (8 million dollars) a day.

One of the three malls closed was the newly opened Siam Paragon, which claims to be Southeast Asia's largest shopping centre. The malls closed because of fears the protest would block access for deliveries and customers.

Reuters KD DB2241

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