BANGKOK (AFP) — Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej on Thursday refused to resign or call snap elections, and lashed the protesters besieging his offices for 10 days as a "doomsday cult."
In an hour-long special national radio address, Samak sought to shore up his support base, proclaiming himself a defender of democracy against a movement that he said threatened to bring "anarchy" to Thailand.
"I am not resigning, I will not dissolve parliament. I have to stay in order to preserve democracy and to protect the monarchy," he said.
Searching for a way out of the stalemate, and with protesters clamouring for his resignation, Samak summoned his cabinet for an emergency meeting and proposed holding a referendum to ask the public whether he should stay or go.
But sorting out the legalities of the vote will take weeks, government spokesman Wichianchot Sukchotrat said. An earlier proposal to hold a referendum in July fell flat.
In his vitriolic attack on the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which is occupying the grounds of his Government House offices, Samak accused the protesters of trying to subvert Thailand's democracy.
The PAD -- a hotchpotch of royalists, businessmen and activists -- wants to roll back many of Thailand's democratic gains by creating a new parliament in which only 30 percent of seats would be elected.
"The PAD is like a radical doomsday cult," Samak said.
"The PAD is an illegal group who have seized the Government House and declared their victory. How can that be correct? The country cannot survive without law and order. Otherwise it's a state of anarchy," he added.
Pressure on Samak mounted as Foreign Minister Tej Bunnag resigned after just six weeks on the job, while the White House urged all sides to avoid violence and said it was watching closely.
"We urge both supporters and opponents of the Thai Government to refrain from violence, respect the rule of law and address their differences within Thailand's democratic institutions," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
The protesters meanwhile vowed not to leave their campsite on the Government House lawn, which has become like a small town, with free food shops and even a barber, and said Samak's address had inspired them.
"His speech only increased my confidence that what we are doing is not wrong. We will not go anywhere as long as he stays," said media mogul and protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul.
"This government is bullshit," Sondhi said.
If the referendum goes ahead, government spokesman Wichianchot said voting could be held in October. But all sides agree that any new balloting would likely tilt in Samak's favour.
The protests have again highlighted the gaping divide in Thai society between the wealthy urban elites represented by PAD and the poor rural population that backed ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra and now Samak.
Thaksin was the first politician to rally Thailand's rural heartland into an electoral bloc, winning them over with cheap village loans and universal healthcare.
PAD-led protests in 2006 against Thaksin, accusing him of widespread corruption, paved the way for the military coup against him.
Thaksin has fled to Britain to escape corruption charges in Thailand, but he tapped Samak to rally his supporters to victory in elections last December, ending more than a year of military rule.
The recent spate of anti-government protests turned bloody in the early hours of Tuesday, when one of Samak's supporters was beaten to death in street clashes with the PAD.
After the killing Samak declared a state of emergency in Bangkok, essentially giving control of the capital to the army.
But the powerful army chief, General Anupong Paojinda, has so far refused to evict the protesters from Government House, saying he would try to negotiate a solution first.
Anupong has ruled out a coup, after the last military government was widely derided as a bumbling administration that frightened foreign investors in a country whose economy depends on exports.
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