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Thai leader fends off calls for his resignation

Facing chaotic street protests demanding his resignation, Thailand's embattled prime minister turned to lawmakers Sunday to find a way out of the crisis, but ended up having to fend off his critics' calls to step down or call new elections.
Thailand Political Unrest
Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej listens to an aide during a parliamentary debate Sunday in Bangkok.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Facing chaotic street protests demanding his resignation, Thailand's embattled prime minister turned to lawmakers Sunday to find a way out of the crisis, but ended up having to fend off his critics' calls to step down or call new elections.

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej went before a special joint session of Parliament to find a solution to the deepening crisis, even as thousands of right-wing protesters laid siege to his office compound for a sixth night and threatened to shut down more airports and roads in the country.

The debate ended early Monday after about 11 hours with scores of lawmakers either lambasting Samak or defending him. More than 1,000 government supporters staged a spirited but peaceful counter rally in front of Parliament.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the opposition Democrat Party, proposed that Samak dissolve Parliament and call new elections.

"Dissolving Parliament is a way for the government to show responsibility. If you don't want to take the responsibility on your own (by resigning), take all of Parliament members with you (by dissolving it)," Abhisit said.

Samak replied: "I will not resign or dissolve Parliament. I will not be defeated by those protesters.

"Don't you feel ashamed? Our image as far as the rest of the world sees us will be destroyed. I am the one who has taken the helm of the country, the decision should be mine," he said.

"I am sure that I love this country as much as anybody," he said. "But I love democracy much more, more than anyone who told me to resign."

Small explosion after session
Shortly after the debate ended, a small explosion at a police booth near where there have been anti-governments protests damaged windows, but caused no casualties. No one claimed responsibility for the blast.

Samak received key backing Saturday from his ruling six-party coalition, which said it would not back calls for dissolving Parliament to call new elections. The coalition controls more than two-thirds of the seats in the 480-seat lower house.

The influential army commander, Gen. Anupong Paochinda, has vowed that the military will not stage a coup.

The group leading the protesters, the People's Alliance for Democracy, has expressed little interest in the lawmakers' debate.

Chamlong Srimuang, one of the protest leaders, dismissed the debate as "a cheap joke," saying it was too late for lawmakers to appease the protesters.

"People don't care about what's happening in Parliament," he said, repeating demands for Samak to resign. "Their meeting has nothing to do with us."

The group began its occupation of the Government House compound on Tuesday and has blocked streets in the capital. It has had allies in state enterprise unions disrupt rail and air services around the country through strikes and blockades.

Threat to close airports
Its leader for the southern provinces, Sunton Raksarong, threatened Sunday to have the group shut down seven airports in his region — which serve thousands of foreign tourists everyday — if the government imposes emergency rule.

Three airports were closed by protest blockades Friday night, with the busiest, at the popular tourist destination of Phuket, reopening only on Sunday.

Sunton threatened to block major roads to the South. Some roads in the south, north and northeast were temporarily blocked last week.

The protest organizers accuse Samak's government of corruption and being a proxy for ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a 2006 bloodless military coup sparked by the alliance's protests. Thaksin recently fled to Britain to escape corruption charges.

Samak led Thaksin's political allies to a December 2007 election victory, and their assumption of power triggered speculation that Thaksin would make a political comeback on the strength of his continued popularity with Thailand's rural majority, which benefited from his generous social welfare programs.

The alliance and their sympathizers — monarchists, the military and the urban elite — complain that Western-style democracy of one-man, one-vote gives too much weight to Thailand's rural majority, whom they consider susceptible to vote buying that breeds corruption.

They want a roll back of Thailand's democratic gains of the post-1973 dictatorship era to make Parliament a body in which most lawmakers are appointed and only 30 percent elected.

Protester Thanyalak Genawicharana, 63, a retired teacher from Bangkok, said he was willing to put up with even more difficulties than camping out in cramped, wet conditions at Government House to bring Samak down. He said he was "one among millions of people who can drive out this corrupt government."

"I hate Samak and I hate Thaksin," he said.