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Thai Army Chief Says Force Will Not Be Used Against Protests


Thailand's army chief vows the military will not use force against protesters in Bangkok. As Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, his comments follow a state of emergency declared by Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej.

Prime Minister Samak Sandaravej imposed the state of emergency after pro- and anti-government protesters clashed overnight, leaving at least one dead and dozens wounded.

The People's Alliance for Democracy has led thousands of people to surround the main government buildings in Bangkok for a week. The group demands that Mr. Samak step down.

Four hundred soldiers were called after the clash to support police efforts to end the protests. The head of the Thai Army, General Anupong Paochinda, says he wants to avoid violence.

The general says he will not have the soldiers carry weapons or use bullet-proof vests. He says they will not use force to harm the protesters.

Despite the reassurance, many in Thailand recall 1992, when the Army violently suppressed pro-democracy protests. Scores of people were killed and about 600 wounded. And just two years ago, the military ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra after months of protests by the same group opposing Mr. Samak.

Mr. Samak, who was elected last December, says the emergency decree will be in place for three days. It bans gatherings of more than five people, bars news reports that might damage stability and allows security forces to block access to buildings.

Public schools have been closed for the next few days. Aside from the area around the government offices, Bangkok was calm and local train services and buses operated normally.

Buranaj Samitharak is a spokesman of the Democrat Party, which supports the People's Alliance for Democracy. He accuses the government of being behind the overnight clashes.

"Beginning of two days ago [the government] chose to crackdown on the peaceful demonstrations," said Buranaj. [But] Mr. Samak reiterated his hardline stance, resulting in many people in the governing coalition party setting up an assembly of people to counter the People's Alliance for Democracy. This escalated into clashes this morning."

Courts have ordered the People's Alliance for Democracy to end the protests, but the group's leaders have encouraged an estimated 5,000 supporters to continue the demonstration.

They accuse Mr. Samak of acting for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who recently fled to Britain to avoid corruption charges. He says he is innocent and accuses the Thai judiciary of bias.

Nearly five months of protests have helped sink stock prices, with Thailand's main share index down more than 23 percent. During the past few days, protesters have closed airports in tourist areas, leading thousands of travelers stranded. Union leaders are threatening to cut utilities to government buildings and to curtail Bangkok's bus service on Wednesday.

Concerns are growing the turmoil will hurt the economy. An economist at Chulalongkorn University, Sompop Manarangsan, says many business people think Mr. Samak should stand down.

"Quite some of them [in the business community] have asked the head of the government to sacrifice [his position] for the sake of the country or the dissolution of the parliament may be the better way," he said.

The national election commission voted to ask Thailand's constitutional court to dissolve Mr. Samak's People Power Party. The commission alleges that a party leader bought votes in last year's national election. It is not clear if the court will dissolve the party.

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