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Supporters of Thailand's Former PM Seek Royal Pardon

The Thai government has begun efforts to block a petition drive to win a royal pardon for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. His supporters' drive for a pardon has raised the political temperature.

Supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, known as Red Shirts, hope to garner more than one million signatures on the petition asking King Bhumipol Adulyadej for a pardon.

Mr. Thaksin, who was ousted in a coup in 2006, is in exile after fleeing corruption charges last year. A court found him guilty in a case involving government land purchases and he was sentenced to two years jail.

But government politicians say the petition drive is not legal, as a person must already be serving a prison sentence before seeking a pardon.

Kudeb Saikrajang, a Thaksin ally, says that despite those arguments, many people have been enthusiastic about signing the petition.

"It is the wish of the people that express what they want to do - they just want to convey their feelings to the king," said Kudeb. "We cannot take it as a legal process as such because it cannot be done according to the law but they can express their view. They can convey their grievance to the king because that happened in the history of Thailand."

Mr. Thaksin, he says, remains popular and is "still fresh in the memory" of people despite efforts by the current government to undermine the former leader's support.

Thousands of Mr. Thaksin's supporters began gathering Friday morning in a Bangkok park for a rally that will last well into the night. During the rally, the organizers plan to announce the details of the petition, which they say will be presented to the king next week.

Mr. Thaksin's policies on health care and rural development won him strong support in rural areas and poor urban neighborhoods. But the middle class accused him of being corrupt and authoritarian.

Thitinan Pondsudhirak is a political scientist from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. He says the petition drive and the reaction to it reveal the division in Thai society.

"The mass petition to ask for a royal pardon for Thaksin shows Thaksin's desperation. But it also shows Thailand's deeply polarized society - many of the Thaksin opponents now are opposed to this and they have begun a campaign to reverse, to stop the petition," said Thitinan.

The Thai government has tried to counter the petition campaign. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has warned Mr. Thaksin's supporters against signing the petition, accusing the campaign's backers of "manipulating innocent people".

Government supporters say the petition organizers want to draw the monarchy into Thailand's fractious political debate. King Bhumipol, now 81 years old, is deeply revered by the Thai public. He traditionally has avoided any public role in politics.