Thai prime minister announces referendum on constitution

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, responding to public discontent with his government, said Saturday there will be a national referendum in April on whether to amend Thailand's constitution. Thaksin made the announcement during his weekly radio address, speaking ahead of an anti-government rally held later in the day in the capital that was expected to draw tens of thousands of people. Thaksin's critics accuse him of corruption and abuse of power and want him to step down.

Thaksin said he had asked the Election Commission to hold the referendum simultaneously with the next election for the country's Senate, on April 19. "If the people said they want the constitution to be amended, we will do so as the people hold sovereignty over the country," Thaksin said in his radio address. He did not say if he would take a position on the referendum.

Thaksin's top critic and the rally's main organizer, publisher Sondhi Limthongkul, responded that Thaksin had long opposed amending the constitution, and took the initiative "because his back is against the wall."

Sondhi told reporters he did not have hope in change through the parliamentary process, an apparent reference to the large majority Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party holds in the House of Representatives.

Sondhi, once a crony of Thaksin, late last year started staging rallies accusing him of abusing his office, and calling for his resignation. Sondhi's campaign until recently has been something of a one-man show, but he was joined Saturday by leaders of several groups, including student organizations and labor unions. Sondhi described the group as "The people's alliance for democracy."

"Thaksin is not my problem, he is the problem of the country," Sondhi said in a brief speech to a crowd of about 10,000 people shortly before 6. p.m. Sondhi last weekend led a protest of as many as 60,000 people demanding that Thaksin step down in what appeared to be Thailand's biggest political protest since 1992, when demonstrations toppled a military-backed government.

People were still streaming into the demonstration site even after Sondhi spoke Saturday, but it was unclear if this week's rally, also at the Royal Plaza near parliament, would be as big. Thailand enacted a reformist constitution in 1997 meant to promote democracy.

But critics of the charter point to several flaws which they say run contrary to democratic principles. A section which states that an election candidate must be a member of a political party for at least 90 days has had the effect of binding members of parliament to their party under threat of being unable to run again if a new election is called, reports the AP.


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