Image: Thai demonstrators
AP
Demonstrators pass a line of riot police during a rally against the Thai government Thursday in Bangkok.
updated 3/26/2009 5:43:20 PM ET 2009-03-26T21:43:20

Supporters of former leader Thaksin Shinawatra surrounded the government's main office Thursday to demand its dissolution, drawing tens of thousands to a boisterous rally and clearing police barricades with construction cranes.

The new burst of political turmoil, which plagued Thailand throughout most of last year, came as the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva grappled with the country's worst economic crisis in a decade.

The demonstration by some 30,000 red-shirted Thaksin loyalists started shortly after the government began doling out 2,000 baht ($55) checks to millions of low-income Thais to stimulate an export-dependent economy battered by loss of global markets.

While recipients gladly scooped up the checks and rushed off to department stores or savings banks, the protesters derided the handouts as a poor imitation of Thaksin's populist policies.

"Is he (Abhisit) trying to buy us off?" said a protest leader, Nattawut Sai-kua. "It is not going to work. We will protest until this illegitimate government is gone."

The demonstrators vowed to remain for at least two more days around Government House, which includes the prime minister's offices. They say Abhisit's government came to power through illegal means and are demanding a dissolution of Parliament and fresh elections.

Song and dance
As dusk approached, their numbers swelled to more than 30,000, Interior Minister Chavarat Chanweerakul said. About 10,000 police and soldiers were deployed to quell any violence.

Singing folk songs and dancing, the demonstrators had traveled on the city's main roads to convene outside the offices, pushing through a police cordon as officers gave way to the crowds.

Police had placed sand-filled cargo containers across one street to block access, but protesters drove in with two yellow construction cranes, using them to pick up the containers and toss them into a nearby canal to the exuberant cheers of fellow protesters.

"We want this illegitimate government out. The longer they stay, the more damage will be done to Thai democracy," protest leader Jatuporn Phromphan told the cheering crowd at Government House from a makeshift stage.

Image: Supporters of Thailand's ousted premier
Pornchai Kittiwongsakul  /  AFP - Getty Images
Supporters of Thailand's ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra march along the main street in Bangkok on Thursday.

The "red-shirts," as they are commonly known because of their favored color, say Abhisit rose to power through illegal means — after courts, backed by the powerful military, removed two previous pro-Thaksin administrations last year.

Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup for alleged corruption and abuse of power.

The court action ended one of Thailand's worst political crises: months of protests by Thaksin's opponents who brought the government to a virtual standstill and buffeted the country's vital tourist industry by occupying both the prime minister's office compound and the capital's two airports.

Abhisit said the government does not expect the protest to turn violent, and earlier pro-Thaksin demonstrations against the current government have been generally peaceful.

"We will use utmost patience," he told reporters.

Handout for the poor
The so-called "help-the-nation" dole-out, which totals 18 billion baht ($509 million), targets over 9 million people earning less than 15,000 baht ($424) a month.

"We need to get money quickly into the system, and this is the quickest way," Abhisit said.

Businesses launched special deals to attract check recipients. A mall operator pledged to add 20 percent to checks cashed at its stores. KFC fast food outlets offered to exchange checks for store coupons plus 20 free pieces of chicken.

"It feels good that I am spending to save the country. What an odd concept!" said Narisara Songsawang, a 36-year-old clerk.

The program is expected to increase economic growth by 0.2 percentage points, Finance Minister Korn Chatikavenij said Wednesday.

Some said they planned to save the money for hard times.

"You watch the news and people are getting laid off daily. I think I will save it in case my husband is the next one to lose his job," said Ponnapa Sintanee, a 38-year-old mother of three. She earns 12,000 baht ($340) a month as a school teacher.

Although the one-time measure was welcomed by many, some criticized it for targeting only about a third of the country's labor force while farmers and self-employed people were not eligible for the scheme.

More on: Thaksin Shinawatra Abhisit Vejjajiva

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Video: Protesters demand government resignation

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