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Thai PM calls elections as 140,000 join protest

Anti-government protesters stand outside the closed gates of Government House in Bangkok on December 9, 2013
Anti-government protesters stand outside the closed gates of Government House in Bangkok on December 9, 2013

Thailand's premier called a snap election Monday to try to defuse the kingdom's political crisis, but protesters kept up their fight to topple the government with an estimated 140,000 demonstrators flooding the streets of Bangkok.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has faced more than a month of sometimes violent demonstrations by boisterous protesters storming key state buildings in a bid to unseat her government and replace it with an unelected "People's Council".

By dissolving parliament and calling a new election that her party is likely to win, the embattled premier aims to cool public anger without bowing to the demonstrators' demands to suspend the country's democratic system.

Map of Bangkok, Thailand, locating Government House, main target of protesters Monday
Map of Bangkok, Thailand, locating Government House, main target of protesters Monday

Protest leaders, however, said they were not satisfied and pledged to rid Thailand of the influence of her older brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a tycoon-turned-premier who was ousted by royalist generals in a coup seven years ago and lives overseas.

"The movement will keep on fighting," anti-government leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who faces an arrest warrant for insurrection, told AFP.

He struck a more triumphant tone when addressing supporters later in the day.

"We have totally eradicated the Thaksin regime from Thailand. Today is historic. Your work has paid off because we can begin the first step to reform Thailand," he told a sea of supporters.

The political conflict broadly pits a Bangkok-based middle class and royalist elite backed by the military against rural and working-class voters loyal to Thaksin.

Thai anti-government protesters wave national flags as they rally at Government Complex in Bangkok on December 9, 2013
Thai anti-government protesters wave national flags as they rally at Government Complex in Bangkok on December 9, 2013

His overthrow in 2006 by generals loyal to the king ushered in years of political turmoil and rival street protests by the royalist "Yellow Shirts" and Thaksin's supporters, known as the "Red Shirts".

Thaksin -- who once described Yingluck as his "clone" -- is widely considered the de facto leader of the ruling party.

Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election in more than a decade, while the opposition Democrat Party -- whose MPs resigned en masse Sunday because they could not achieve anything in parliament -- has not won an elected majority in about two decades.

Democrat Party officials said Monday they had not yet decided whether to take part in the upcoming election, which must be held within 60 days of the house's dissolution.

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra speaks at police headquarters in Bangkok on December 9, 2013
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra speaks at police headquarters in Bangkok on December 9, 2013

"The anti-government protesters want to take over the government. They do not want to contest for government because they have lost each time," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

"If they succeed we will likely have more turmoil in Thailand because the pro-government supporters, the so-called Red Shirts, have not been heard so far and we can presume that they must be very angry at the turn of events."

Dozens of people were killed in a military crackdown on mass pro-Thaksin Red Shirt rallies in Bangkok three years ago.

Yingluck's Puea Thai party said she was likely to be its candidate for prime minister again in the upcoming election, which it expects to be held on or around February 2.

'We don't want any more elections'

Around 140,000 people were estimated to have joined the protests by early afternoon, according to the government's Centre for the Administration of Peace and Order, which was set up to deal with the unrest.

Demonstrators marched along several routes through the capital to the government headquarters -- the main target of the rally.

A Thai anti-government protester holds a sign against PM Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother and Thaksin Shinawatra as they sit behind the fence surrounding the Government House compound during a rally in Bangkok on December 9, 2013
A Thai anti-government protester holds a sign against PM Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother and Thaksin Shinawatra as they sit behind the fence surrounding the Government House compound during a rally in Bangkok on December 9, 2013

"We don't want politics any more -- no elections. Only the protesters can choose the next government. We choose, then the king appoints them," said one demonstrator who did not want to be named.

Tensions remain high after several days of street clashes last week when police used tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets against rock-throwing demonstrators.

The unrest has left five people dead and more than 200 injured. Authorities have said they would try to avoid fresh confrontation and there were no reports of violence by early evening.

"Police are unarmed, with only shields and batons. We will not use tear gas, or if we have no choice, its use will be limited," Interior Minister Jarupong Ruangsuwan said ahead of the rally.

"The government believes we can control the situation. We will focus on negotiation," he added.

The demonstrations were triggered by an amnesty bill, since dropped by Yingluck's ruling party, which opponents feared would have cleared the way for Thaksin's return.

The former premier went into exile in 2008 to avoid jail for a corruption conviction which he says was politically motivated.