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Thai PM says his goal is to heal political divide

 Thai riot police officers form up lines as they confront with protesters, background, who block the entrance to the parliament Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2008...
 Thai protesters block the half-opened gate of the parliament to prevent riot police officers to come out and clear way for the government to declare ...
 A Thai female protester climbs as her colleagues block at the half-opened gate of the parliament to prevent riot police officers to come out to clear...
 Thai riot police officers stand guard inside parliament as protesters stage a blockade outside during a protest to prevent government to declare its ...

Thailand Political Unrest

Thai riot police officers form up lines as they confront with protesters, background, who block the entrance to the parliament Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2008...

Thailand Political Unrest

Thai protesters block the half-opened gate of the parliament to prevent riot police officers to come out and clear way for the government to declare ...

Thailand Political Unrest

A Thai female protester climbs as her colleagues block at the half-opened gate of the parliament to prevent riot police officers to come out to clear...

Thailand Political Unrest

Thai riot police officers stand guard inside parliament as protesters stage a blockade outside during a protest to prevent government to declare its ...

Thailand's government was forced to change the venue of its key policy speech Tuesday as thousands of demonstrators loyal to exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra surrounded Parliament, extending months of political turmoil.
Several hundred protesters also sought to disrupt proceedings at the Foreign Ministry, where the government and lawmakers had gone to deliver the policy statement.
With protesters confronting police outside, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva gave a 50-minute speech outlining plans to jump-start the economy, heal the country's political divisions, address a four-year-old Muslim insurgency in the south and repair its tattered image among foreign tourists and business leaders.
"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, vowing to ring the Parliament building until their demands for new general elections are met, forced the government to abandon plans Monday to deliver its policy speech. The government said it would try to peacefully end the blockade.
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 anti-Thaksin alliance.
One of the protest leaders, Chakrapob Penkhair, told The Associated Press that the demonstrators were not barring entry to the Parliament building.
"We still insist that the PM and parliament members should walk through us to get in. We guarantee their safety. By walking in, we can have a talk with him," he said.
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 current protest group _ which calls itself the Democratic Alliance against Dictatorship and is known as the "red shirts" _ 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.