Thailand protesters warn of escalating street rallies

Tens of thousands of red-shirted Thailand protesters filled main avenues in Bangkok Sunday as they called for the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Damir Sagolj/Reuters
A Buddhist monk holds a banner as he joins other supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra in central Bangkok, Saturday. Thailand protesters aimed to paralyze the capital and topple a government they say is a front for unelected elites, Sunday.

Tens of thousands of Thailand protesters gathered here Sunday to dance, clap, and call noisily on Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to step down or face escalating protests in the coming days.

The rally was among the biggest in Thailand in four years of political turmoil, much of it over the fate of Thaksin Shinawatra, a rich businessman turned prime minister who was ousted in a 2006 coup. Many protesters want Mr. Thaksin, who lives in Dubai and was convicted last month of corruption while in office, to return to power, though others insist that their broader fight is to restore justice and democracy in Thailand.

“I follow the news and all I see are double standards,” says Pa-Aod, a farmer from the northeast, who had tucked her gray hair into a red bandana.

As evening fell, the crowd stretched the length of a four-lane avenue, with official estimates in the range of 50-100,000, though organizers claimed that as many as 300,000 showed up. The atmosphere was festive among the "red shirts," many of whom had arrived the previous day in bus convoys from Thailand’s rural provinces.

Can violence be prevented?

Rally organizers say they are committed to nonviolent change and there was no sign of tension on the streets. Security forces, which have been granted sweeping powers to handle the demonstrations, kept a low profile, with small units unarmed police and soldiers staying on the fringes of the rally.

But there is trepidation among Bangkok residents over the red shirts in their midst after similar pro-Thaksin rallies erupted in violence last April. Thai media have stoked the alarm with predictions of unrest and chaos on the streets, all aimed as bringing down Mr. Abhisit, who leads an anti-Thaksin coalition and has rejected calls to resign.

“For the country to carry on, you must listen to the sound of the people,” a protest leader, Nattawut Saikua, told a cheering crowd.

Monday noon deadline

Speaking backstage to reporters, Mr. Saikua said Abhisit should dissolve the parliament and hold elections, which most analysts believe would return a pro-Thaksin majority. He set a Monday noon deadline for the dissolution and said that otherwise protesters would besiege an Army base where Abhisit and his aides are holed up.

Such deadlines are common in Thai protests, and some observers are braced for a drawn-out confrontation between the government, which has strong military backing, and forces aligned to Thaksin. “It’s a stare-down. The critical issue is now going to be what next,” says a Western diplomat.

Some of the harshest words delivered from the stage, interspersed with thumping pop songs, were aimed at Prem Tinsunalonda, the chief advisor to revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is shielded from public criticism. Some protesters complain that Mr. Prem, a retired Army chief, is part of a Bangkok elite that undercuts democracy and represses the rural poor.

“They look down on red-shirt people like me. When Thaksin had a policy platform for us, that group trampled all over it,” says Ms. Pa-Aod, who declined to give her full name.

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