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In Thailand, populist protesters turn the tables on the government

Thousands of supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra seek to topple the government that itself came to power after mass demonstrations.

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Opponents accuse Thaksin of seeking to overthrow Thailand's monarchy, which he denies. In his live speeches, he has drawn a distinction between the "highest institution," as it is known, and its courtiers who meddle in politics. But he has urged his red-clad supporters, who are mostly drawn from the lower classes, to rise up against the aristocracy and return Thailand to a "complete democracy."

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"The rhetoric of Thaksin has totally changed. He seems to have an escalation plan in place ... and he's going for broke," says Chris Baker, coauthor of a critical biography on Thaksin.

On Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban offered to hold talks with Thaksin, but insisted that the government would not resign. Thaksin has not responded publicly to the offer.

Buranaj Smutharaks, a spokesman for the ruling Democrat Party, said the government would not interfere with legal proceedings against Thaksin, as he has demanded. Last year, he was found guilty in absentia over a 2003 land sale. Prosecutors are also trying to seize $2.1 billion of his assets that were frozen after the coup.

"We're willing to negotiate with anyone if that would resolve the crisis and bring stability, but the law is the law," says Mr. Buranaj.

Thailand's shrinking economy may ratchet up the pressure on the government, which is supported by influential business groups who are leery of political turmoil. Factory layoffs and a drop in tourism add to the pool of idle workers. Protest leaders are also hammering home the message that only Thaksin, a self-made businessman, can rescue the Thai economy from ruin.

Thaksin supporters are quick to criticize the government's plan to borrow up to $2 billion offshore to stimulate a trade-dependent economy. By contrast, Thaksin made great political capital during his first term by repaying a loan to the International Monetary Fund that was extended during the 1997-98 financial crisis.

After the crisis, the Democrat Party, which polls strongly in central and southern Thailand, was tarred with the brush of an unpopular IMF restructuring program. It has since struggled to win over rural voters in the north and northeast, where Thaksin burnished a populist, can-do image.

Now, Thaksin is using that record as leverage to stir resentment against a privileged elite, including Oxford-educated Abhisit and the PAD, which dismisses poor voters as too ill-informed to chose.

"This is the fundamental division in Thai society," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a politics professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. "If you don't build a bridge [to the masses], they will be alienated."