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Former Thai PM draws crowd of 30,000

/ Source: The Associated Press

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra attacked the government's handling of the economy Saturday and told thousands of cheering supporters not to abandon the fight for democracy in one of the largest demonstrations to hit the kingdom in months.

More than 30,000 supporters braved heavy rains in Bangkok to hear the media tycoon, who addressed the crowd via telephone link from what he said was an undisclosed location near the Thai border. The enthusiastic reception reinforced Thaksin's political strength and indicated the return of the "red shirt" movement that supports him.

The United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship — known as the red shirts — was silenced in April by threats of a government crackdown following days of street clashes and riots that left at least two dead and more than 120 injured.

Protest leaders said they are continuing to call for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's resignation, the dissolution of parliament, and new elections.

"We come here because we want to see true democracy," Thaksin told the crowd. "We loathe injustice. We loathe double standards. We're here to say if you want us to stop, then return justice and true democracy."

Thaksin also complained that he was lonely and serenaded the crowd with a song that included the line "Don't leave me in Dubai" — a reference to one of the cities he has called home since he fled into exile last year after being convicted of corruption.

"Are you going to bring me back, red shirts?" he asked. "I'm a grateful person. When I'm back, I'll work for the people right away."

Police mobilized 3,000 security officers and warned the red shirts not to block Abhisit's office, as it did for several weeks in March and April. But protest leaders said they had no plans to march to Government House and there was no indication the crowd was leaving the soggy Sanam Luang field in central Bangkok.

"We want to overthrow the government which has been set up by the establishment," protest leader Jatuporn Phromphan told the crowd. "We want the dissolution of parliament. We will insist on our demands no matter how long it takes."

The protesters accuse the country's elite — the military, judiciary and other unelected officials — of undermining the country's democracy and orchestrating a 2006 coup, in which Thaksin was ousted.

Thaksin's allies remained in power in the two successive governments, but were stymied by "yellow shirt" protesters and separate charges of conflict of interest and fraud, that were held up in court rulings.

The yellow shirts — who took to the streets last year shuttering Bangkok's two main airports — argue that voters in Thaksin's rural base are too easily bought.

Abhisit cobbled together a coalition after a court disqualified the pro-Thaksin prime minister on complaints of fraud in the 2007 election, ending the yellow shirts' demonstrations.

The red shirts responded by launching their own protest in March, but backed down under threat of a military crackdown after their demonstrations became violent.