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Protests Force Government to Postpone Parliament Meeting in Bangkok


Thailand's opposition has called on the government to open talks with anti-government protesters, in a bid to ease political tension after a major rally outside parliament prevented a joint house meeting from taking place. As Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, the rally that drew tens of thousands opposing the government went off peacefully, after police and security forces allowed it to proceed.

A rally by tens of thousands of anti-government protesters surrounded parliament in the Thai capital, Monday, leading the house speaker to postpone a joint session aimed at passing key legislation.

By mid-morning speakers from the People's Alliance for Democracy or PAD, triumphantly told supporters the government was unable to hold the meeting. Electrical power supplies had been cut to the parliament building.

The PAD has laid siege to a government administrative building since late August, in a bid overthrow the government, which it claims to be a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Early Monday, police allowed the tens of thousands of demonstrators to gather outside the parliament. The peaceful nature of the rally stood in contrast to a similar protest in early October, when security forces opened fire with tear gas and two people died and some 400 others were injured.

Elsewhere Monday, hundreds of anti-government protesters blocked access to the Metropolitan Police headquarters and other key ministries.

Chris Baker, an author and commentator on Thai politics, says, despite the absence of violence, the outlook remains uncertain, with both pro- and anti-government sides looking to a "trial of strength" in numbers to win public support. He says the PAD's strategy had been to concentrate on what he calls "symbolic targets."

"This is quiet a clever strategic move, to concentrate when forces (the PAD has) on key symbolic targets in the capital," Baker said. "Obviously, particularly first government house, now the parliament. So it's really come down to this trial of strength about what forces you can put on the streets and public places. Where this ends, God only knows."

The rally comes as pro-government rallies have been staged, in recent weeks -- also drawing tens of thousands of supporters -- calling for a return to power of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The PAD says it fears the government is looking to pass key constitutional amendments to halt investigations and court proceedings against Thaksin, his family and supporters.

Last month, judges found Thaksin violated conflict-of-interest laws in 2003 when his wife purchased land from a government fund. They sentenced him to a two-year jail term.

But, despite the back-down by the government, tensions remains high. In recent days, grenade attacks on the PAD's stronghold at the government house compound have left two people dead and more than 20 others injured.

The opposition Democrat Party has called on the government and the opposition to start talks. Party Spokesman Buranaj Samutharak says the government must give assurances the constitutional amendments will not proceed, at the present time.

"It is incumbent in order for the negotiations -- if they were to take place and proceed. The government needs to unequivocally give its word or action that the constitutional amendment motion would not be part of any parliamentary session," Buranaj said.

Thailand remains deeply politically divided. The PAD has proposed "new politics," with parliament being made up of elected and appointed representatives, a move seen as disenfranchising many voters in rural areas.

But the urban middle class has accused Thaksin of authoritarianism, as well as threatening the role of independent institutions, including the judiciary.

Thaksin remains strongly popular -- especially among the urban working class and in key north eastern rural areas, where his grassroots support was built on populist economic policies, such as low-cost health care and cheap loans for development.

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