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Thailand's antigovernment red shirts gear up for elections

Tens of thousands of Thailand's antigovernment 'red-shirt' protesters took to Bangkok's streets over the weekend demanding democracy and promising to keep up the pressure as Thailand turns toward elections this year.

By Correspondent / January 10, 2011

Thai antigovernment 'red shirt' protesters gather at Bangkok's shopping district, decorated in red colors on Jan. 9. The protesters marched across Bangkok on Sunday, in the first peaceful and symbolic demonstration since the government lifted an emergency rule in the capital.

Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters

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Bangkok

Tens of thousands of antigovernment “red-shirt” protesters rallied in Bangkok Sunday in their largest show of force since Thai troops violently broke up protests last May.

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Rally leaders demanded justice for those killed in May and vowed to keep pressing the government.

The boisterous rally, which drew at least 30,000 people, came as Thailand braces for an election that must be called by the end of this year and will be bitterly contested. Last year's bloodshed, the worst in a generation, has left a highly-polarized political landscape and calls for national reconciliation have faltered.

A rival royalist group is preparing to rally on Jan. 25 and has stirred up tensions on the disputed Thai-Cambodia border, where seven Thais, including a ruling party lawmaker, were recently arrested for illegal entry. The group shut down Bangkok’s international airports in late 2008, helping to topple an elected government loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

“The underlying conflict is still not resolved,” says Kan Yuenyong, director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a research center in Bangkok.

Hours before Sunday’s rally, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva used a televised speech to unveil new policies for low-income families. His aides say that the government is trying to reduce tensions by reaching out to disaffected voters on both economic issues and social justice, a rallying cry of the red shirts. These reforms include constitutional changes and new media regulations.

Justice?

“This is part of reconciliation. The broader aim is to reduce injustice,” says Panitan Wattanyagorn, a spokesman for Mr. Abhisit.

In the aftermath of the May protests, in which 91 people died, mostly red-shirt protesters shot in street clashes, the government promised a full investigation.

But the powerful military has stonewalled an independent inquiry, to the frustration of victims’ families. Investigators have also struggled to identify masked gunmen who fought alongside the red shirts.

At Sunday’s rally, protesters held aloft gilt-framed photos of the dead and pinned up gruesome pictures of corpses. Candles were lit in their memory at a makeshift altar with a collection box stuffed with donations. A woman with horror movie make-up daubed on her face held a sign that read in Thai
and English: “Abhisit is the great PRETENDER. One Land, Double Standard.”

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