Page last updated at 13:57 GMT, Monday, 15 March 2010

Thai PM rejects protest ultimatum


The protesters have vowed to keep rallying until the government steps down

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has rejected a demand from protesters to resign and call elections.

He spoke on national TV as tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the barracks where he is based.

The rally, led by red-shirted supporters of ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra, was one of the largest in recent years.

It passed off peacefully, but two soldiers were hurt when grenades exploded inside another army base.

An army spokesman said the grenades appeared to have been fired into the compound, but said it was not clear who was responsible.

Rachel Harvey
Rachel Harvey, BBC News, Bangkok

With the government appearing determined to resist their demands, the red-shirts decided to up the stakes.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators thronged the streets while loudspeakers mounted on trucks delivered a high-decibel repetition of their demand for fresh elections. A line of soldiers in riot gear faced them from inside the iron fence of the army compound, but the mood was once again good-natured.

As the day wore on, the army used its own loudspeakers to broadcast jazz tunes composed by the Thai king.

The security forces seem to have decided to wait it out in the hope the protests eventually run out of steam, but as night fell the protesters had regrouped in the old part of Bangkok, in no mood yet it seems to give up.

Early in the day, crowds of demonstrators gathered outside the headquarters of the 11th Infantry Battalion barracks in the north of the Thai capital.

Several thousand extra soldiers were sent to reinforce security at the barracks - to which the prime minister had moved after the demonstrators set up camp around Government House.

As the protesters' deadline for him to step down passed, Mr Abhisit appeared on national television flanked by ministers and coalition allies.

"The protesters have demanded that I dissolve the house before midday (0500 GMT) today, but the coalition parties agree the demand cannot be met," he said.

"Elections must be held under common rules and genuine calm. We have to listen to other people's voices, not just the protesters."

Mr Abhisit then left the army base by helicopter, saying he wanted to inspect the traffic.

The BBC's Rachel Harvey, who was outside the barracks, says it is not clear where he is now.

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To me, the most interesting thing to observe were the ordinary Thais - vendors, people coming out of their shops, and people streaming from smaller sub-sois [streets] to watch - who were not wearing red, but were cheering as well

The protest passed off in a peaceful and good-humoured manner, our reporter adds, but there was no sign of compromise from either side.

The protesters have now returned from the barracks to their base camp at Government House. Red-shirt leaders said they would meet to discuss their next move.

One protest leader said the demonstrators would each contribute a small amount of blood to be thrown on the gates of Government House on Tuesday, as a symbol of their determination.

Thaksin legacy

About 100,000 demonstrators held rallies in Bangkok on Sunday.

2006: Yellow-shirts launch street protests to oust PM Thaksin Shinawatra
Sept 2006: Thaksin ousted in military coup
Dec 2007: Thaksin allies win first post-coup elections
Sept 2008: Yellow-shirts occupy Bangkok government buildings, clash with pro-Thaksin red-shirts
Nov 2008: Yellow-shirts occupy Bangkok's airports, forcing cancellation of hundreds of flights
Dec 2008: Thaksin-allied government falls, rival Abhisit Vejjajiva forms government
Apr 2009: Red-shirts storm Asean summit, clashes erupt in Bangkok
Mar 2010: Red-shirts launch protest aimed at bringing government down

Political speeches culminated in a video address by Mr Thaksin, who told the crowd they were bringing democracy to Thailand.

Mr Thaksin is living in self-imposed overseas exile after receiving a two-year sentence in absentia for abuse of power; his supporters say that case was politically motivated.

The protesters say the present government was installed illegally after Mr Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006, and two subsequent allied governments were deposed by court action.

The red-shirt protest leaders insist their movement is non-violent.

They say they are prepared to stay in the capital for five days, to pressure the government into calling new elections.

The military has been given extra powers to impose curfews and restrict numbers at gatherings if necessary.

The last major protests, in April 2009, turned violent, with two deaths and dozens of people injured.


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