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Thai leader wants referendum to end crisis

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.
Image: An anti-government supporter
An anti-government protester reacts to a speech by Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej in Bangkok on Thursday.David Longstreath / AP
/ Source: news services

Thailand's prime minister refused again on Thursday to cede to protesters determined to oust him, but offered an unconventional compromise — a referendum on his fate aimed at ending the political crisis that has paralyzed the government and raised fears of economic chaos.

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej hopes the vote will allow him to keep his job while placating the People's Alliance for Democracy, which has vowed to continue its campaign, including occupying the seat of government, until Samak quits.

The referendum will ask the public to choose between the alliance and the government, but many analysts say a simple yes-no vote is insufficient in the face of a complicated political crisis.

Late on Thursday night, 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.

The campaign to force Samak to quit 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 which gives the army powers to intervene.

Police said the shooting appeared to be an isolated incident and there was no tension in the city.

The anti-government alliance ridiculed Samak's referendum plan, saying Samak will manipulate the vote, just as they allege he did during general elections in December 2007.

"The referendum is an attempt by Mr. Samak to buy himself some more time in the office," Sondhi Limthongkul, a media tycoon and one of the protest leaders, told The Associated Press.
Idea caught nation by surprise
Before announcing the referendum, which caught the nation by surprise, Samak delivered a combative speech on national radio, again refusing to step down.

"The campaign will last for a month in which both sides can do whatever electioneering they want," he said, adding that the thousands of activists who have barricaded themselves within his official compound could stay there during this period.

"I will not abandon the ship, and I will take responsibility for the crew on board," Samak said, peppering his speech with folksy language. "I am not resigning. I have to protect the democracy of this country."

Some have said the referendum could aggravate rather than alleviate the political deadlock.

"A referendum is normally used to test public approval on whether to go to war or pass an important law. It would not be effective as a tool to solve a complicated political crisis with many conditions and layers," said Panithan Wattanayagorn, a political science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

"The problem is complex and nuanced and asking a yes or no question will only further divide the country," Panithan said.

Before any referendum can be held, the Senate must pass a law because current statutes do not provide for the possibility. Samak said once the law is passed, it would take about a month to hold the vote.

Senate President Prasobsuk Boondej said he did not believe a vote, even a rushed one, would 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 told reporters.

The alliance, which claims to be apolitical, is a loosely knit group of royalists, wealthy and middle-class urban residents, and union activists. It wants Parliament to be revamped so most lawmakers are appointed rather than elected, arguing that Thailand's impoverished rural majority is too susceptible to vote buying.

The group has already had a hand in bringing down one government, when it staged demonstrations in 2006 that paved the way for the bloodless coup that removed then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from office.

Opposition says government corrupt
Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon, recently fled to Britain to escape corruption charges. The protesters say Samak is Thaksin's stooge and is running the government for him by proxy. They accuse Samak's government of corruption and making unconstitutional decisions.

After months of protests in the capital, thousands of PAD supporters stormed the gates of the Government House, the stately domed building that houses Samak's office, on Aug. 26. They have occupied the compound's lush lawns, set up a thriving community under tents and refused to budge.

Even though Samak imposed a state of emergency on Bangkok on Tuesday, the military has not stepped in to evict the protesters for fear it would lead to a bloodbath.

Rioting between supporters of Samak and the alliance left one person dead and dozens injured early Tuesday, the only violence since the deadlock began.

Still, the possibility of a military intervention looms in Thailand, which has experienced 18 coups since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

The government's failure to resolve the deadlock has also raised fears of an economic downturn, especially in Thailand's crucial tourist industry, which is particularly susceptible to concerns about political instability.

Since the beginning of the year, the Stock Exchange of Thailand index has fallen 24 percent. In the second quarter, the country's economic growth slowed for the first time in more than a year. The central bank expects growth to ease further in the second half because of the political crisis.

"The country is at risk of becoming ungovernable," the Credit Suisse Group said in a report.

Information from The Associated Press and Reuters is included in this report.