Thai PM says his goal is to heal political divide

BANGKOK, Thailand – Anti-government protesters abandoned their siege of Thailand's Foreign Ministry building on Tuesday, easing a standoff that threatened to re-ignite a long-running political crisis.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his Cabinet then left the building, where he had earlier given a key policy address in which he vowed to jump-start Thailand's economy, heal its political divisions and repair its tattered image.

"The government has come into office at a time of conflict. This conflict has become the weakness of the country," he told lawmakers that included only his coalition members. Opposition members boycotted the session.

"Meanwhile, the global economic crisis has turned the situation from bad to worse," he continued. "Our government's priorities are reviving the ailing economy and solving the conflicts between groups in Thai society."

The protesters calling themselves the Democratic Alliance against Dictatorship vowed to surround the Parliament building until their calls for new general elections are met, forced the government to abandon plans Monday to deliver its policy speech.

But on Tuesday, they appeared to be easing their demands and said they may end their protests outside Parliament as soon as Wednesday, which is a government holiday.

"It's not important how long we will gather. The important thing is that we have had the chance to express our view of the current government," protest leader Chakrapob Penkhair told The Associated Press.

The standoff comes less than a month after the last government was forced from office following six months of demonstrations that culminated in the eight-day seizure of Bangkok's two main airports. The earlier protesters had been part of an alliance opposed to ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The latest demonstration was peaceful except for some brief scuffles between protesters and police Tuesday. But analysts say the continuing upheavals will further batter Thailand's virtually moribund tourist industry and other economic sectors.

"We will keep negotiating and mediating," Abhisit said of efforts to end the latest political crisis.

The third prime minister in four months, Abhisit was formally named prime minister Dec. 17 in what many hoped would be the end of months of turbulent, sometimes violent, protests. However, his party — which had been in opposition since 2001 — heads a coalition that some analysts doubt is strong enough to last until the next general election in 2011.

"There's no confidence among tourists who want to visit Thailand," said Prakit Chinamourphong, president of the Thai Hotel Association. "I just want to see a peaceful country without demonstrations so that the tourists will come back to Thailand again."

The Democratic Alliance against Dictatorship — also known as the "red shirts" because of their attire_ is an eclectic mix of Thaksin loyalists, farmers from the countryside as well as laborers from the cities including the capital Bangkok.

Thaksin, once one of the country's richest men, was ousted in a 2006 coup and remains in self-imposed exile.

Several thousand of his supporters converged Monday on the street leading to Parliament, clapping and cheering as singers and protest leaders chastised the incoming government.

"We are here for democracy," said Narumol Thanakarnpanich, a 53-year-old university professor from Bangkok. "We want a new government."

They have demanded the new government dissolve the legislature and call general elections, which they believe would be won easily by the pro-Thaksin camp because of its strong rural support base.

The scene was reminiscent of the last round of protests, when yellow-shirted protesters opposed to Thaksin first took over the prime minister's residence and the airports. That group is aligned with Thailand's educated elite who viewed Thaksin's six years in power as deeply corrupt and a threat to their interests.

The sit-ins staged by both sides have shared the same relaxed festival feel, with security forces largely leaving the protesters alone.

Thailand's government was forced to change the venue of its key policy speech Tuesday as thousands of demonstrators loyal to Thaksin surrounded Parliament, extending months of political turmoil.