Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra vowed yesterday to hold on to his job in the face of mass street protests, saying he would not bow to mob rule but that he might retire from politics at a later date.
The embattled Thai leader said on Wednesday that he might step down temporarily amid allegations by a loose alliance of pro-democracy groups, students, labor unions and Buddhist activist that he is corrupt and has destroyed democratic institutions.
"The talk of the town is that I am about to bow out, that I'm giving up, resigning. How can I do that when so many people turn up to give moral support?" he told a cheering crowd in the northeastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima. "Only a man who is out of his mind would bow to mob rule."
But asked by a reporter about his earlier remarks, Thaksin hinted that he was thinking about full retiremesnt, "I am tired, I will be 57 in a few months ... When I think that enough is enough, it won't be a break."
"I work for the nation and I still have something very small to accomplish and after I complete that I don't know what else I would hang on for," he said while on the campaign trail for snap April 2 elections he has called in hopes of refreshing his mandate and deflating the growing movement against him.
Thousands of anti-Thaksin demonstrators continued to ring the seat of government in the heart of Bangkok, vowing not to leave the Government House until the prime minister steps down.
The crowd had expected to confront Thaksin yesterday, when he returned to the capital from his out-of-town campaigning. The leader had said he would chair a planning session at Government House for celebrations this sum-mer of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's 60th anniversary on the throne.
But Thaksin changed the venue at the last minute and held the meeting at the Foreign Ministry, over a kilometer from the protests at Government House.
Government spokesman Surapong Suebwonglee said all the traffic outside Government House made it an "inconvenient" spot for the meeting. However, protesters saw it as a sign that Thaksin was afraid to cross their picket line.
"It's strange. There are more than 1,000 policemen here, but the prime minister doesn't feel safe here,'' said a protest leader.
Meanwhile, the country's Election Commission said it was considering the possibility of postponing the April election because of an opposition boycott.
Many constituencies have only one candidate -- from Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party. But victories would be valid only if candidates win votes of at least 20 percent of the district's eligible voters, which is highly unlikely in districts where Thaksin's party has no support.
Elsewhere, five people were killed yesterday when suspected Islamic militants opened fire on a government building in the country's restive south, police said.
The assault capped a bloody 24 hours in the region that had claimed the lives of three other people, as officials have said that militants have been using recent weeks of political crisis to step up the violence.
In the latest attack, militants fired automatic rifles and riddled the government building with bullets in the village of Pado in Pattani Province, police said.