Page last updated at 17:30 GMT, Thursday, 9 April 2009 18:30 UK

Huge rallies spark Thai shutdown

Taxis form a road block in Bangkok, Thailand (09/04/2009)
Taxi drivers have helped to paralyse Bangkok's streets

Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has declared a public holiday to help security forces deal with mass anti-government protests in Bangkok.

Tens of thousands of supporters of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra have brought the streets of the capital to a near standstill.

The protesters say Mr Abhisit came into office illegally and must stand down.

They have threatened to disrupt a regional summit in the resort of Pattaya on Friday if he does not go.

The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) say they will block access to the hotel where Thailand will be hosting the Asean meeting of 16 Asian leaders.

"Our people will leave for Pattaya tonight, gather protesters and lead them to block the road to the hotel. We will not allow this meeting to take place," said UDD leader Jatuporn Prompan.

"We apologise to partners of Thailand, but we need to show them that the Thai people do not accept this government."

There are thousands more of us
Kongkiat Janpeum, taxi driver

Mr Abhisit declared the public holiday on Friday to decrease people's problems" following the traffic chaos that left thousands of commuters stranded on Thursday.

In a televised address, he said he would not give in to the protesters' demands for fresh elections.

"I believe dissolving parliament under current circumstances is highly inappropriate as it is unlikely to lead to an election that helps promote a democratic image," Reuters quoted him as saying.

He has insisted that the Asean meeting will go ahead, saying that the government would "do everything to restrain" protesters.

"We have increased security measures in Pattaya and all leaders still confirm they will attend the meeting," he said.

"The government will enforce the law. I want protesters to decide based on the benefit of the country."

On Wednesday, Mr Abhisit said that the government would respond if protests turned violent.

"If there's rioting, we will have to do something. I can affirm there will be no violence starting from the government's side," he told local television.

'Thousands more'

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva
Protesters say Mr Abhisit came to power illegally

The red-shirted UDD demonstrators accuse Mr Abhisit's government of being a puppet of the military.

On Wednesday, they surrounded the home of an influential royal adviser in the capital.

They have accused Gen Prem Tinsulanonda of engineering the 2006 coup that removed Mr Thaksin from power.

They have now been joined by thousands of taxi drivers, who have blocked major roads and helped paralyse traffic in parts of the city, including the busy Victory Monument junction.

Mr Jatuporn said that if the government attempted to disperse the rally by forces "red shirts will be all over every city hall".

"The country's administrative arms will be paralysed," he said.

The taxi drivers, who have supported Mr Thaksin in the past, said they could yet call more protesters on to the streets,

"We have asked more taxi drivers to do the same if Abhisit does not resign. There are thousands more of us," said spokesman Kongkiat Janpeum.

Divided country

British-born Mr Abhisit came to power in December after a court ruling removed Mr Thaksin's allies from government.

Anti-government protesters in Bangkok, Thailand (09/04/2009)

At the time, yellow-shirted anti-Thaksin protesters had closed the country's airports for a week.

But the long political crisis has yet to end despite a court's removal of Mr Thaksin's allies from government.

Thailand remains deeply divided between Mr Thaksin's followers among the urban and rural poor and his foes in the traditional power cliques of the military and bureaucracy.

Mr Thaksin, who is living in an undisclosed foreign country and faces jail if he returns to Thailand, has said the protests show that the people "will not tolerate these politics any more".

Speaking to protesters via a videolink on Thursday evening, Mr Thaksin said they "cannot be defeated".

"We must win because if we lose all Thai people lose," he said.

He asked Bangkok residents caught up in the disruption to "sacrifice your convenience" because they would ultimately "benefit from democracy".

The months of protests have had a significant effect on Thailand's economy and badly affected its vital tourist industry.

The Bank of Thailand has cut its key interest rate by 25 basis points to 1.25%, the fourth reduction in four months as the country struggles with a weak economy.

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