Thai Prime Minister Refuses to Resign After Deadly Protests

Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat refused to step down Friday, a day after the army's commander suggested he resign over deadly force employed by police to suppress an anti-government protest last week.

Gen. Anupong Paochinda said a television interview Thursday if he were in the prime minister's place he would step aside to take responsibility for violence on Oct. 7 that left one woman dead and more than 400 other people injured.

While the general discounted the possibility of a military coup, it was unclear whether other senior officers share his views.

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Thousands of anti-government protesters marched through Bangkok's business district early Friday, holding up posters with photos of Somchai and the police chief and calling them murders.

In a nationally televised press conference, Somchai brushed aside calls for his ouster.

"The government cannot just abandon its work and responsibility. We have many major projects coming up," Somchai said.

Somchai left open the possibility that he might step down after a special panel to investigate the Oct. 7 violence makes its report, which he said was expected in the next 15 days.

On Oct. 7, protesters tried to block Parliament to keep Somchai from delivering a speech. Police used tear gas to clear the street, setting off a series of street battles, with rioters torching parked cars, trucks and vans.

A second protester was killed in a mysterious explosion inside a car near the street fighting.

"What happened is not what we intended," Somchai said. "Whatever the result (of the probe), the government will accept it. If someone has to take responsibility, we will accept it."

Somchai's decision to hold on to power extends a deepening political crisis that has nearly paralyzed the government as the country enters a third straight year of instability.

Analysts said Somchai was courting danger by failing to heed to the general's advice.

"The army has publicly stated its stand for the first time. They may also try to apply pressure on the coalition partners" said Panithan Wattanayagorn, a political science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "If this is not successful, it would be difficult to predict what will happen next."

A September 2006 military coup ousted then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications billionaire, accused of corruption and abuse of power. An interim government was appointed but proved unpopular and incompetent.

The anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy has been seeking Somchai's resignation because they regard him as a puppet of Thaksin, who is his brother-in-law.

Somchai's People's Power Party remains popular with the majority of Thais living in the countryside, but he faces fierce opposition from the alliance and its sympathizers — monarchists, the military, the urban elite. Several legal cases pending against him and his party also could force him out of office.

Somchai become prime minister last month after Samak Sundaravej was forced from power for accepting money for hosting a TV cooking show while in office, which a court ruled an illegal conflict-of-interest. Samak was elected in December 2007 by running as a proxy for Thaksin, who was in exile and banned from politics.

"(Somchai) ordered police to kill protesters. Thais should come out on the street to oust the evil government," said Somsak Kosaisuk, a leader of the protest alliance.