The besieged new prime minister of Thailand vowed Friday night that he would not resign despite spreading political protests against his regime, the most serious demonstrations in the country in two decades.
Hours after the prime minister, Suchinda Kraprayoon, appeared on national television and said he would not be forced out of office, the protests appeared to swell. Thousands of demonstrators blocked streets in central Bangkok after encountering a wall of white-helmeted policemen on their way to the Parliament building.
"Out, out!" the crowd shouted in unison. "Fight, fight!"
The Suchinda government, which took office only last month, has been under siege for a week since Chamlong Srimuang, the influential former governor of Bangkok, started a hunger strike outside Parliament demanding Suchinda's resignation.
Chamlong, who heads the reformist Power of Virtue political party, ended the strike today, saying his supporters wanted him to eat so he could continue "fighting dictatorship."
Chamlong has become the unofficial leader of democratic forces in the country seeking Suchinda's removal because he was appointed prime minister by a coalition of five pro-military parties and not elected to office.
Until last month, Suchinda was the supreme commander of Thailand's armed forces, and he was a leader of the coup against an elected government last February. He had promised Thais that he would not seek the premiership but had a change of heart after the elections.
The demonstrations, which started with college students and opposition politicians, have been swelled by office workers and people of the middle class, who have grown tired of the military's domination of Thai politics. For the first time, protests have also been reported in cities outside Bangkok.
Thai commentators have compared the protests with pro-democracy demonstrations in October, 1973, which ended when troops opened fire, killing 75 people. But the protests forced the serving prime minister, Thanom Kittikachorn, to step down and flee the country.
In his address to the nation, Suchinda promised the government would not use violence to suppress the demonstrations as long as they remain peaceful. He also expressed personal sympathy for those on hunger strikes.
But he appeared resolute on the main issue of stepping down and calling new elections, as some opposition spokesmen have demanded.
"I came here in the parliamentary way, and if I have to leave, it will be by parliamentary procedure," Suchinda said.