September 5, 2008 / 10:01 AM / in 11 years

Thai protesters in Bangkok say in for long haul

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thousands of mostly middle class anti-government protesters braved the midday tropical heat of Thailand’s capital on Friday to reject a compromise proposal from the embattled prime minister of a referendum on his rule.

The protesters — students, housewives and retirees among them — have occupied Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej’s official compound and roads around it, covering about 11 acres

in the heart of Thailand’s seat of government in Bangkok.

They have been there for 11 days and say they will leave only when Samak quits.

“Samak has to get out,” said Nawarat Tantislriwat, a teenaged, first-year accounting student at Bangkok’s elite Thammasat University, at the protest in the school’s white shirt and long blue skirt uniform along with several friends.

“We are here to show our power, our solidarity.”

In the countryside, Samak’s power base, many poorer Thais are calling for an end to the protests and getting on with life.

Asked if she had cut classes to join the protest, Nawarat said: “This is more important.”

Samak is also a graduate from Thammasat University but is reviled by current and former students for his rabble-rousing radio rhetoric that sparked a 1976 crackdown on left-wing students there in which 46 people died, by the official count.

He has been restrained against the protesters this time, and said on Thursday that they could stay in Government House and campaign in his planned referendum, which could take more than a month to arrange.

“We don’t accept that,” said Wirat, a retired official from the ministry of agriculture, mopping his brow as he sat under the shade of one of the hundreds of tents set up in the compound.

“We want the prime minister and the cabinet to go now. They are really bad, they are corrupt.”

His wife, sitting beside him, said: “If they won’t go, that’s fine. We can stay here instead of in our home.”

In 2006, protesters established a semi-permanent presence in a parade ground near the royal palace as part of their bid to force out then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was finally removed in a military coup and barred from politics.

Samak, a Thaksin nominee, won elections last year when the military decided to return to the barracks. He inherited his mentor’s popularity in the countryside but also the intense dislike of Bangkok’s ruling elite for Thaksin.

The anti-Samak protest is led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a collection of retired solders, a media mogul, royalists and academics, and someone among them, or a sponsor, has deep pockets.

The thousands of protesters get free food and water, and an army of tents that has sprung up in the compound of Government House includes first aid centers with saline drips and other equipment to deal with heat stroke.

Sophisticated sound systems and television monitors have been strung up all around to relay political pep talks from a huge stage and someone has donated a consignment of motorcycle crash helmets for protection in case of a police attack.

There are mobile toilets and a convoy of garbage trucks keep the place fairly clean.

The PAD has said it is costing up to one million baht ($30,000) per day to keep the occupation of Government House going.

The PAD wants the current one-man, one-vote democracy, which has allowed Thaksin and Samak to take power on the strength of provincial votes, to be replaced by a system of overwhelmingly appointed government.

“The prime minister should be someone who is not corrupt and not a Thaksin nominee,” said Charinya Kanchanaseree, another of the Thammasat University students.

Reporting by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Alan Raybould

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