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Thai PM calls elections as protesters fight on

Update: December, 09/2013 - 11:00
Thousands of anti-government protesters from all directions on Monday continued their march to the Government House despite Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's announcement on Monday morning that she will dissolve parliament. — Photo The Nation

BANGKOK – Thailand's premier called a snap election on Monday to try to defuse the kingdom's political crisis, but protesters vowed to keep up their fight to topple her government with a major rally described as "judgement day".

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has faced more than a month of street protests by demonstrators, sometimes numbering in their tens of thousands, who want to suspend the country's democracy in favour of an unelected "People's Council".

Thai opposition lawmakers resigned en masse from parliament on Sunday, deepening the crisis.

Yingluck, the sister of ousted leader Thaksin Shinawatra, announced in a televised national address early on Monday that she would dissolve parliament and hold a general election "as soon as possible."

"The government does not want any loss of life," she said, as demonstrators began another major street rally in the capital amid fears of fresh violence. The election move could increase pressure on protesters to agree to some kind of compromise with the government.

But the leaders of the anti-government movement have said that they would not be satisfied with new elections, pledging to rid Thailand of the influence of Thaksin, a tycoon turned premier who was ousted by royalist generals in a coup seven years ago and now lives abroad.

"The movement will keep on fighting..." said protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban.

"My people want more than dissolution. They are determined to regain their sovereignty," he said.

Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election in more than a decade and despite the mass protests, many experts believe Yingluck's party is likely to triumph in new elections.

The opposition Democrat Party – which said on Sunday its 153 MPs were resigning from the 500-seat lower house because they could not achieve anything in parliament – has not won an elected majority in about two decades.

100,000 protesters expected

More than 1,000 protesters began marching on Monday from a government complex on the northern outskirts of Bangkok to Yingluck's heavily guarded offices – the main target of the protest.

Others were massing at other locations in the city to descend on Government House with tens of thousands of people expected to join the rally.

Thaksin's overthrow ushered in years of political turmoil and sometimes bloody street protests by the royalist "Yellow Shirts" and the rival pro-Thaksin "Red Shirts".

Tensions remain high in the kingdom following several days of street clashes as police used tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets against rock-throwing demonstrators.

The unrest has left five people dead and more than 200 injured. The authorities have said they would try to avoid fresh confrontation.

"Police are unarmed, with only shields and batons. We will not use tear gas, or if we have no choice, its use will be limited," Interior Minister Jarupong

Ruangsuwan said in a televised news conference late on Sunday.

"We expect 100,000 people to join the protest. The government believes we can control the situation. We will focus on negotiation," he added.

Demonstrators and police have observed a temporary truce since Wednesday for the 86th birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is treated as a near-deity by many Thais.

With turnout dwindling, Suthep has called for a final push to bring down the government.

"We want you to come out and march in every road. We will not go home empty-handed," the protest leader said in a speech to supporters late on Sunday, calling for the world's biggest-ever rally.

The former deputy premier, who now faces an arrest warrant for insurrection, has vowed to surrender to the authorities unless enough people join the march to the government headquarters.

Thailand's political conflict broadly pits a Bangkok-based middle class and royalist elite backed by the military against rural and working-class voters loyal to Thaksin.

The former premier went into exile in 2008 to avoid jail for a corruption conviction which he says was politically motivated.

The demonstrations were triggered by an amnesty bill, since dropped by Yingluck's ruling party, which opponents feared would have cleared the way for Thaksin's return.

They are the biggest and deadliest street demonstrations since 2010, when dozens of people were killed in a military crackdown on mass pro-Thaksin Red Shirt rallies in Bangkok. AFP

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