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Thousands of Supporters of Former Thai PM Mark Coup Anniversary


Several thousand supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra staged rallies to mark the third anniversary of a military coup that toppled him from power in 2006. The government has set in place tight security in a bid to avoid a repeat of violence in April when the Thai army was called to disperse rioters on the streets of Bangkok.

Heavy monsoonal rain showers greeted thousands of so-called "red shirt" supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra as they gathered to listen to anti-government and pro-Thaksin speeches Saturday, with many calling for fresh general elections.

Pro-Thaksin supporters at the rally accused key advisers of the Thai King of being behind the coup that brought an end to five years of Thaksin's rule. The Thai leader was accused of corruption and abuse of power while in office. He denies the charges and calls them politically motivated.

Mr. Thaksin was in the United States attending the United Nations General Assembly when tanks and soldiers occupied key buildings in Bangkok. The military appointed an interim prime minister along with a national assembly. Fresh elections were held in December 2007.

Mr. Thaksin returned to Thailand early last year but faced with a corruption case he fled the country in August 2008. He remains in exile. Mr. Thaksin was subsequently convicted in absentia and sentenced to two years in prison. Other corruption case verdicts are pending.

From exile Mr. Thaksin has maintained contact with supporters by giving speeches via video conference phone links.

Mr. Thaksin enjoys the support of many rural and low-income citizens who have rallied for him since his removal. His so-called Red Shirt protesters forced the cancellation of a major regional (ASEAN) summit at a Thai resort in April. Protests for and against Mr. Thaksin and his allies have led to multiple changes in leadership in the past three years.

Mrs. Korawee, a registered nurse, attending the rally, remains a fervent supporter of Mr. Thaksin.

"I love Thaksin," she said. "Thaksin very good. Thaksin superman. He helps the people, he help the people, he help the people."

Mrs. Korawee said many she knows are now suffering from a lack of jobs and money. She says life is more difficult than when Mr. Thaksin was prime minister.

Thailand is currently gripped by a deep recession triggered by the global downturn. The government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva says economic stimulus packages should have a positive impact on the economy in the later this year.

The Thai government said it had feared violence erupting at the rally and enacted emergency laws to deal with unrest.

Panitan Wattanayagorn, a government spokesman, said while authorities had reports of potential trouble they expected the rally to go off largely peacefully.

"So we expect that normal demonstration will go accordingly but for those who want to push the demonstration, to become violent they will be contained, they will be arrested, and they will be stabilized," he said.

Thailand continues to face deep political divisions with few signs of reconciliation between competing groups for power.

In recent weeks divisions have also emerged within the coalition government adding to a climate of political instability and placing pressure on Prime Minister Abhisit to call new elections.

Analysts say the government may go to the polls in early 2010.

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