Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was forced to delay his maiden policy speech until today after thousands of protesters blockaded parliament in the latest twist to the kingdom’s political crisis.
Red-shirted supporters of ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a 2006 coup, sealed off the gates to parliament yesterday and said they would stay until the newly installed Abhisit calls fresh elections.
The siege brought a sense of deja vu for many Thais, with protesters copying the tactics of rival yellow-clad activists who launched a street campaign that helped to bring down a government led by Thaksin’s allies earlier this month.
“The house speaker has decided to postpone the session until tomorrow [Tuesday],” Abhisit told a press conference, adding that the speech could continue until tomorrow.
The speech was meant to start yesterday morning but had already been delayed twice.
“We have negotiated all day and it was not successful, but we will continue our efforts. What has happened today will not affect the government’s plans,” he said.
The pro-Thaksin protesters earlier said they would allow Abhisit and his Cabinet to walk into parliament but not come by car. Authorities said it was unsafe for legislators to do this.
Police said around 9,000 “red-shirts” descended on parliament overnight after at least 20,000 Thaksin supporters had gathered on Sunday night at a city center parade ground.
“We call for the government to dissolve the house and return power to the people,” pro-Thaksin leader Chalerm Yoobamrung said.
Abhisit won a parliamentary vote two weeks ago to become Thailand’s third premier in four months, after a court dissolved the former ruling People Power Party (PPP) loyal to Thaksin on Dec. 2.
That verdict followed months of protests by the royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), an anti-Thaksin group that blockaded Bangkok’s airports earlier this month, causing huge damage to the economy.
Supporters of Thaksin, who is living in self-imposed exile to avoid a jail sentence for corruption, said the verdict in a vote fraud case was a “disguised coup” against the former government.
Abhisit rose to become prime minister with the help of defectors from the PPP and coalition parties previously allied with it.
The policy address to the upper and lower houses of parliament is a constitutional requirement before the government can start work on a raft of economic and social challenges facing Thailand.
Abhisit, 44, has vowed a “grand plan of reconciliation” and a 300 billion baht (US$8.6 billion) economic stimulus package, but caused controversy by appointing a vocal supporter of the PAD’s airport blockade as his foreign minister.
Abhisit reiterated yesterday that he had ordered police to avoid a repeat of clashes at parliament on Oct. 7, when the PAD tried to stop then-premier Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law, delivering his policy speech.
The violence left two people dead and around 500 injured.
Thaksin is still loathed by the Bangkok-based elite in the military, palace and bureaucracy, who backed the PAD and see Thaksin as corrupt, authoritarian and a threat to their traditional power base.
But his populist policies won him huge support among the urban and rural poor, especially in his native north and northeast.