03/06/2006, 00.00
THAILAND
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Premier launches election campaign amid opposition protests

by Weena Kowitwanij

Cardinal Kitbunchu: "Each one is free to express his desire for democracy, but leave Catholic organisations out of the protests".

Bangkok (Asianews) - Thaksin Shinawatra, the Prime Minister of Thailand who stepped down and leader of the Thai Rak Thai  majority party, has launched his election campaign despite the opposition's declared intention to boycott "with every means" the upcoming election slated for 2 April.

The call to the polls followed the "surprise" dissolution of the Lower House of Parliament, announced by the prime minister after political pressure against him was stepped up. Thaksin – a 56-year-old billionaire businessman who went into politics and was elected for the first time in 2001 – came under fire for the transfer of shares of Shin Corp, the industrial group he founded before joining the political scene, which includes a telecommunications giant. The deal was worth 1.9 billion US dollars and was weighed down by heavy accusations of public corruption.

The first electoral move of the premier was to hold a meeting on 3 March of his supporters in the capital: more than 100,000 people responded to his call.

During his address, Thaksin "once again" urged opposition parties "to participate in the elections, which are in line with all the requisites outlined in the Constitution." He also issued a challenge: "If I do not get more votes of those who abstain, I will not be Prime Minister in the new government."

The People's Alliance for Democracy – which unites all the parties and movements against the premier, led by Chamlong Srimuang and Sonthi Limthongkul – yesterday responded with another, non-violent demonstration on the streets of Bangkok which drew, according to police estimates, 50,000 people.

Among demonstrators there were members of the university movement and more than 5,000 peasants who for years have called in vain on Thaksin's government to introduce agricultural reforms. There were also Buddhist monks of the "Dharma Army", whose leader, Chamlong Srimuang, led a bloody revolt against the military government in power in 1992.

Cardinale Kitbunchu, president of the Thai Bishops' Conference, said it is "the right of each and every one to express his support for democracy", but he appealed to all the faithful "not to allow Catholic organisations to become involved in the protests".

Even Somdej Phrayan-nasangworn, the 95-year-old chief of the country's Buddhist monks, commented about the situation: speaking on national radio, he said: "Those who protest using violence have no religion as there is no religion which preaches the use of force. Anyone who knows he is the cause of the controversy should decide: either to mend one's ways or to quit his position."

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