Thai PM turns to parliament to try to defuse protests

BANGKOK (AFP) — Thailand's prime minister turned to parliament Sunday to try to prevent anti-government protests from entering a second week, but angrily rejected opposition calls for him to step down or hold fresh elections.

Samak Sundaravej is still looking for a peaceful way out of the crisis that erupted Tuesday when thousands of demonstrators rampaged through Bangkok's historic district and invaded his offices, demanding that he resign.

The premier called the emergency parliament session after police briefly clashed with rowdy supporters of the so-called People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) on Friday, while rallies spread outside the capital to key tourist spots.

The opposition Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva distanced himself from the protesters besieging Government House, but suggested the prime minister dissolve parliament, which would lead to new general elections.

"I said earlier when the PAD called on the prime minister to resign that it can't happen because he came from elections," Abhisit told the house.

"But if one person or one hundred thousand people call on the government to show responsibility, this is the democratic way ... House dissolution is the one way to show responsibility."

Other opposition lawmakers were even more combative.

"It is time for the prime minister to review his role and behaviour," said Democrat Party MP Jurin Laksanavisit. "You should ask yourself whether you should maintain the premiership."

Samak -- whose coalition took power in February after securing nearly two-thirds of the 480 seats in parliament in December elections -- dismissed the opposition's suggestions.

"Your solutions do not show that you want to keep democracy. Why are the only solutions house dissolution and resignation? Why can't we choose the third option, which is to show the world that we maintain our democracy," he said.

"I thank you for the comments, but sarcasm has no place in Parliament."

Samak had earlier reiterated that he was determined to stay in power.

"I told you before that I will not resign -- I will stay on to run this country," he said on his regular Sunday morning television programme.

The PAD began its campaign against Samak in May, objecting to his plans to amend the constitution and accusing him of running Thailand on behalf of his ally, ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

PAD protests in early 2006 helped lead to the coup later that year that forced Thaksin from office, and Samak has accused the PAD of trying to spark another putsch.

"They seized government offices, airports. Is this democracy, or is this the people's alliance to destroy democracy?" Samak asked on his TV show.

Police officials told AFP that between 14,000 and 17,000 people remained in and around the grounds of Government House, where most have barricaded themselves in with coils of barbed wire, bamboo poles and piles of tyres.

Many protesters on Sunday watched the parliamentary debate on television screens erected in the compound, while their leaders remained defiant.

"The PAD is preparing to up the pressure within the next few days. We will enact advanced measures if Samak does not resign," said PAD spokesman Suriyasai Katasila, one of nine protest leaders wanted on arrest warrants.

As supporters prepared to bed down for a sixth night at the make-shift camp, another spokesman got on stage and threatened to call on unions to cut water supplies to government offices if their demands were not met.

Protests spread outside Bangkok for the first time on Friday, with demonstrators blockading airports serving beach resorts in Phuket, Hat Yai and Krabi. A strike by railway workers halted a quarter of all services.

All three airports have since reopened, but a group calling itself the PAD Southern Alliance has threatened to surround seven airports in the south if Samak declares emergency rule.

The prime minister has so far said he does not want to call a state of emergency because it would stoke fear in the kingdom.