Thai protesters mark anniversary of 2006 coup

David Longstreath/AP
Bangkok police watch an anti-government demonstration at Royal Plaza today in Bangkok, Thailand. Anti-government demonstrators were gathering to mark the third anniversary of a bloodless coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

More than 6,000 police were out in force Saturday in Thailand's capital as anti-government protesters marked the third anniversary of a military coup they say was a major setback for the democratic system.

In a separate protest Saturday in northeastern Thailand, violence broke out as a different political group broke through police lines to march to a temple on the Cambodian border and demand the Thai government recover disputed territory.

Many of the protesters in Bangkok are supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister who was ousted Sept. 19, 2006, after being accused of abuse of power and disrespect to the country's constitutional monarch, 81-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The demonstrators, who gathered in a large public square, want Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, Thaksin's rival, to step down. They claim he came to power illegitimately with the help of the military and the judiciary, two pillars of the Thai ruling class.

Thaksin is popular among the country's rural majority, for whom he instituted generous social welfare programs.

"We are here to show that we want democracy. This government didn't come from democracy. They're a dictatorship in disguise," said 62-year-old Jiraporn Litmontri from northeastern Loei province.

The rally was expected to reach its height Saturday evening. Several thousand people turned out early, but a heavy rain swept through the city at mid afternoon, possibly discouraging attendance. Police had said 20,000-30,000 people were expected.

An election after the coup returned Thaksin's allies to power, but anti-Thaksin protesters caused chaos by occupying the prime minister's office for three months, and the capital's two airports for a week. Court rulings purged two pro-Thaksin prime ministers and led to Abhisit's taking power.

Thaksin's supporters say the Thai establishment — royalists, the military and Bangkok's business-oriented middle and upper class — is unwilling to yield the privileges it has long held at the countryside's expense.

Much of the area near the rally, which is home to government and military offices, was garrisoned to keep the protesters from causing disruption. Abhisit's government earlier this week invoked an emergency law to allow the military to restore order in case of violence.

During the last major unrest in April, the government declared a state of emergency after anti-Abhisit demonstrators overran a meeting of Southeast Asian leaders at the resort town of Pattaya and held a protest in Bangkok that spiraled into rioting, leaving at least two dead and hundreds injured.

In the northeastern province of Sisaket, the group that led anti-Thaksin protests last year -- the People's Alliance for Democracy -- clashed with local residents and brushed through police lines as they marched toward a temple on the Cambodia border to publicize their demand that Thailand seek the return of disputed border territory.

The alliance last year seized on the issue of land around the 11th century Preah Vihear temple to stir up nationalist sentiment and attract political support. They accuse current and past governments of failing to protect Thai land and national sovereignty.

Villagers who opposed the protest clashed with the marchers. Both sides numbered in the hundreds, and many were armed with sticks and slingshots or other homemade weapons.
The Thai army had warned the protesters against marching to the border, and about 50 Cambodian riot police and a special canine unit were deployed in the area.

Cambodian soldiers were ordered to prevent the protesters from crossing the border, said Lt. Gen. Chhum Socheat, a spokesman for the country's Defense Ministry. "Once they enter Cambodian territory, our forces will quickly crack down," he said.

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