February 11, 2006

Thousands rally against Thai PM

By Pisit Changplayngam

BANGKOK (Reuters) - At least 20,000 protesters rallied in
Bangkok on Saturday demanding Thai Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra quit, as he offered to hold a referendum on amending
the country's constitution to appease his opponents.

The eight-hour gathering of state workers opposed to
privatization, farmers and urban professionals ended with
organizers announcing plans to hold another rally on February

"We will fight until we win," media mogul Sondhi
Limthongkul, a former business ally of Thaksin and now his
fiercest critic, told cheering crowd.

Saturday's rally, where Sondhi recited a litany of graft
allegations against Thaksin and his government, followed a
40,000-strong demonstration last weekend, the largest for 14

"Thaksin, get out," protesters chanted, waving national
flags while marching into the Royal Plaza, a block from
Thaksin's Government House and not far from King Bhumibol
Adulyadej's palace, defying a police ban on using it as their

Police did not try to break up the rally but issued tickets
for cars and trucks illegally parked in the area and said they
would impose fines on anyone who illegally used loudspeakers.

Thaksin said on Saturday he would consult electoral
officials on holding a referendum asking voters if they wanted
the 1997 "People's Constitution" amended.

The referendum could be held at the same time as elections
for the Senate on April 19, he said.

"Many of those who call for amendments to the charter were
once its staunch supporters. They say it gives the government
too much power. As they say so, I will let everyone decide," he

"If a majority of people say they want the change, then we
will discuss how," he said in his weekly radio address.


Some analysts described the referendum offer as a delaying
tactic to mollify detractors.

The prime minister, who won a second landslide election
victory a year ago, has seen his popularity wane swiftly among
the middle classes since his family's tax-free sale last month
of Shin Corp, the telecoms empire he founded, to Singapore
state investment company Temasek.

The campaign to oust Thaksin was launched by Sondhi, whose
talk show was taken off state television in September for
criticizing the government.

A new anti-Thaksin alliance -- a coalition of groups called
the People's Network for Democracy -- says it will campaign to
make the constitution more democratic, nullify the Shin deal
and impeach Thaksin on charges of concealing assets illegally.

Analysts say Thaksin's support in the countryside -- where
70 percent of Thais live -- is still solid, and the prime
minister has dismissed his opponents as a "few worthless

The prime minister urged restraint before Saturday's rally,
asking Thaksin supporters who were also expected to show up to
stay away, to avoid clashes with anti-government protesters.

"I don't want to see any conflict in this society where one
side comes to support and the other comes to dismiss. It will
create social rifts," he said.

Suriyasai Katasila, a spokesman for the anti-Thaksin
alliance, said Thaksin's offer of a referendum was too late.

"How can people join a leader who never showed his
willingness to reform politics and only ran the country for his
cronies?" Suriyasai said.

Thaksin insists the Shin share sale was legal and that he
and his family have done nothing wrong.

(Additional reporting and writing by Nopporn Wong-Anan)