Thai PM consults king over escalating protests

 Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has consulted Thailand's king over escalating protests, after demonstrators forced Phuket's airport to close indefinitely in their drive to force the premier from office.

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej

With his government offices besieged for a fifth day by a 15,000-strong protest rally, Samak left Bangkok vowing not to bow to the their demands.

"I want to reassure the public that I will continue to carry on in my job. I will not surrender, I will not quit," he told an audience at a prearranged event on national reconciliation.

Supporters of the so-called People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) have been squatting in the grounds of Government House since Tuesday, with 45 of their guards breaking into the now-empty main office building briefly on Saturday before their leaders told them to retreat.

Since Tuesday Samak Sundaravej has worked out of defence complexes, including the military headquarters and the defence ministry.

The PAD expanded their campaign across the country on Friday, forcing the closure of three regional airports, provoking railway strikes and clashing with riot police in Bangkok.

The group's founder, media tycoon Sondhi Limthongkul, told reporters the protests would continue.

"PAD members have agreed not to give up. Since they (Samak's party) took power in the election, they are trying to manipulate politics and interfere in the justice system," Sondhi said.

After skirmishes with police on Friday caused minor injuries and rattled nerves in the coup-prone kingdom, Samak flew to the king's residence in the nearby town of Hua Hin, returning to Bangkok Saturday morning.

He flew again to Hua Hin Saturday afternoon for a prearranged audience with the king, but said nothing to reporters on his return to Bangkok at 8:00 pm (1300 GMT).

The PAD protesters accuse Samak of acting as a puppet for ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who they helped topple in 2006.

The PAD rails against popular democracy, saying it has encouraged corruption, and has openly called for the palace, the military and Thailand's traditional elite to take a greater role in politics.

Although the demonstrators regularly invoke the king, both in speeches and with royalist imagery, he has remained silent in the current standoff.

The king has little formal political power, but he holds enormous sway over his subjects and has acted as a referee during past political crises in his six decades on the throne.

Airports in the holiday resort of Phuket and two other southern towns were closed on Friday as protesters marched on them.

One small airport reopened Saturday, but 15,000 passengers remain stranded on Phuket, with its airport now shut indefinitely, the airport's director Wicha Nurnlop told reporters.

About one quarter of Thailand's rail services have also been halted since Friday, after nearly 250 drivers and mechanics called in sick to support the protests.

PAD protesters have been demonstrating against Samak since May, but they stepped up their movement on Tuesday by storming a TV station and the Government House grounds.

The turmoil has raised fears of a new coup in a country that has seen 18 military takeovers since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.

The powerful army chief, General Anupong Paojinda, has so far insisted that the military will not return to the streets.

Hoping to defuse the crisis, Samak has called for an emergency parliamentary debate on Sunday, but has refused to step down or call new elections.

Source AFP

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