Monday, December 29, 2008

Africa News Today - AN/Today - Thailand’s Premier Delays State Address Amid Protests

By Rattaphol Onsanit and Anuchit Nguyen

Dec. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Thailand's new government was forced to delay the prime minister's maiden parliamentary address today after as many as 9,000 protesters besieged the building, highlighting the challenges Abhisit Vejjajiva will face in power.

The speech would be postponed to 5 p.m. local time and, failing that, may be moved to tomorrow, Chai Chidchob, the parliamentary speaker, told reporters after red-shirted supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra ringed the site. "If tomorrow doesn't work, we may further delay it," he said.

Political turmoil in Thailand, which has had three prime ministers in the past four months, has polarized the country, hurt tourism and undermined economic growth, compounding the impact of the global recession. The economy may shrink in the first quarter, according to the Finance Ministry.

"This doesn't look good for Thailand," said Korawut Leenabanchong, a fund manager who helps oversee 70 billion baht ($2 billion) at Bangkok-based UOB Asset Management (Thai) Ltd. "The country has been dogged by political risk for two years. It will continue to be the main factor going forward."

Thai protesters hold placards and chant slogans during a protest outside parliament in Bangkok, Thailand on Dec. 29, 2008. Photographer: Apichart Weerawong/AP Images via Bloomberg

Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of Thailand's opposition Democrat party, puts his hands together in a greeting in Parliament House as he is elected prime minister, in Bangkok on Dec. 15, 2008. Photographer: Udo Weitz/Bloomberg News

Thailand is split between two camps -- one backing Thaksin and his allies, which relies on the nation's rural majority for support, and yellow-clad urban and royalist elites. At stake is control of the government and rival visions of the country's democracy, with Thaksin endorsing a more populist system.

Reconciliation Bid

Abhisit, 44, became prime minister after the former ruling pro-Thaksin People Power Party, or PPP, was disbanded earlier this month by the courts. His maiden address, initially planned for 9:30 a.m., may include details of his government's efforts to revive economic growth and promote political reconciliation.

"There is no guarantee of our safety if we have to get there by foot," said Sathit Wongnongtoei, a minister from Abhisit's office. The new prime minister is required under the constitution to present the inaugural address to both the Senate and the House of Representatives after taking office.

Thailand's benchmark SET Index fell for the first time in three days, losing 0.9 percent to 442.57 at 2:49 p.m. The baht declined 0.2 percent to 35.07 against the dollar, the lowest level in almost two weeks.

"We are protesting peacefully," Nattawut Saikuar, a rally organizer and PPP member, said by phone from the protest site in the center of Bangkok. The red-shirted protesters numbered between 8,000 and 9,000, according to Amnuay Nimanoo, Bangkok's deputy police commander.

Two previous pro-Thaksin administrations this year were hounded by yellow-shirted protesters from the so-called People's Alliance for Democracy, which occupied the prime minister's office and Bangkok's main airports. Abhisit now faces rival protesters using similar tactics to force him from power.

Tourism Hit

The conflict has hammered the nation's tourism industry and hurt economic growth. Thailand's economy may shrink in the first three months of 2009 after declining between 2 percent and 3 percent this quarter, the Finance Ministry has said.

Thaksin, ousted in 2006 by a military coup, lives overseas after being convicted for abuse of power. He has addressed his supporters this year in mass rallies using videotaped or broadcast messages.

Prime Minister Abhisit last week said the government will spend 300 billion baht to help counter the slump in Southeast Asia's second-largest economy, including the damage caused when the anti-Thaksin protesters shut down the nation's main airports for more than a week.

"We want to complete the policy presentation before the yearend," Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said before the maiden speech was delayed. "Ministers and coalition parties' lawmakers won't attend the parliamentary session until they are assured of their safety."

Thousands of police are stationed inside parliament to protect lawmakers, said Pongsan Iam-on, Bangkok's deputy metropolitan police chief. There was no plan to use force to disperse the crowds, Pongsan said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Anuchit Nguyen in Bangkok at; Rattaphol Onsanit in Bangkok at

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