September 5, 2008 / 2:02 AM / 11 years ago

Thai PM's referendum plan finds little support

BANGKOK (Reuters) - A national referendum proposed by Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej to end a political crisis in Thailand was dismissed by critics on Friday as a stalling tactic that would resolve little and simply prolong the unrest.

An activist for peace lights a candle as a Buddhist monk prepares to lead a prayer at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on September 4, 2008. Thailand plans to hold a national referendum to end a political crisis over street protests against the government, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej said on Thursday after rejecting calls to quit. REUTERS/Kham

Leaders of the three-month-old campaign in Bangkok to oust Samak have already said their protests, including the 11-day occupation of the prime minister’s official compound, would continue.

Late on Thursday a gunman on a motorcycle fired shots at a group of about 100 students marching to protest at Samak’s home, wounding two of them, police said, although they described the shooting as an isolated incident and said the city was calm.

The campaign to force Samak out has been mostly peaceful, but one man was killed and 45 wounded in clashes earlier this week between pro- and anti-government groups, prompting the imposition of emergency rule to give the army powers to intervene.

Samak announced the referendum on Thursday but it is not known what questions will be put to Thailand’s 65 million people. For procedural reasons, it is unlikely to be held rapidly.

“The decision to hold the referendum, which would take at least one month to implement, may result in the country’s crisis dragging on even further. Besides, the government would have to ensure peace and social order in the country until the day of the referendum,” the Nation newspaper said in an editorial.

“The referendum is simply a desperate attempt by the Samak government to buy more time in office,” it added.

Parliament has to pass a referendum law first and the Senate has not started its reading yet.

Senate President Prasobsuk Boondej told reporters on Thursday he did not believe a vote was the way to end the crisis. “The current situation needs an immediate solution to defuse it. We can’t afford to wait for the referendum law to pass,” he said.

The anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a mainly middle class group of royalists, academics and businessmen leading the occupation of Samak’s compound, has called the plan a delaying tactic to keep Samak in office.

The PAD accuses Samak of being an illegal proxy for former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 coup and now in exile in London. Thaksin is widely admired by the poor and in the countryside but despised by Bangkok’s middle class.

Samak has refused to step down or call a snap election but the PAD has said it will not give in until he goes.

The United States voiced support for the government on Thursday but said it hoped emergency rule would not drag on and urged both sides to refrain from violence.

“We hope the Thai government will be able to limit the duration and extent to which it implements the emergency decree, to the extent necessary to restore the authority of Thailand’s democratically elected government,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

Slideshow (3 Images)

Despite the imposition of emergency rule, the army has refused to use force to evict the protesters, saying it would only make the situation worse.

Besides the referendum, analysts say various other scenarios are also possible, including Samak calling a snap election as a last resort, or caving in to the protesters and resigning.

Another possibility is revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej intervening. Such a move would be unlikely to favor the government, even though it would be couched in nuanced terms, espousing the need for national harmony and stability.

Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Ed Cropley and David Fox

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