Tens of thousands of red-shirted protesters rallied in Thailand's capital on Sunday to press their demand that the government dissolve Parliament or face massive demonstrations at key sites in the city.
The protesters - many from the impoverished northeast and north - want Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to call new elections, which they believe will allow their political allies to regain power. The crowd estimated by police at more than 100,000 rallied peacefully under a blazing sun. Loud pop music and rural delicacies such as spicy papaya salad competed with fiery rhetoric for their attention.
Bangkok's notorious traffic was light and businesses were shuttered, as many citizens feared a repeat of past violence during the four-day demonstrations, which officially began on Sunday but have been building for two days as caravans of protesters poured into the city. The demonstrators stressed they will use only peaceful means. Many of the protesters, popularly known as the Red Shirts, back former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup for alleged corruption and abuse of power. They believe Abhisit came to power illegitimately with the connivance of the military and other parts of the traditional ruling class who were alarmed by Thaksin's popularity, particularly among the poor. Police Gen Wichai Sangprapai, commander in the main protest area, estimated the number of protesters could reach 150,000. "We're demanding the government give up its administrative power by dissolving Parliament and returning power to the people," a protest leader, Veera Musikapong, told a sea of red-shirted followers. "We're giving the government 24 hours." The protesters, formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, said they will march on key locations in the city if the government fails to respond, including the headquarters of the 11th Infantry Regiment, where Abhisit has been living in recent days.
In his weekly radio address on Sunday morning, Abhisit indicated he had no plans to dissolve the legislature.
"Dissolution and calls for resignations are normal in a democratic system. But we have to make sure the dissolution of Parliament will solve the problem and won't make the next election troublesome," Abhisit said.
He also denied rumors that a military coup was possible and said he would not impose a state of emergency that would give the army broad powers to deal with the protests.
"This government has no intention to crack down on the protesters because that doesn't benefit anyone," he said. One protest leader, Jatuporn Prompan, described their campaign as "the biggest war by the common people in the country's history." A force of 50,000 soldiers, police and other security personnel was mobilized in the capital area.
The march is regarded by some as the last chance for Thaksin to return to Thailand.
Forcing the government out of power, Thaksin loyalists say, could pave the way for his pardon and return.
Thaksin, who resides in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, faces a two-year prison term for abuse of power. But he remains popular among the poor who are thankful for the cheap medical care, low interest loans and other measures his government enacted to alleviate poverty.
"Deep inside I wish Thaksin could come back. If he returns, grass-roots people will be taken care of thoroughly," said Buakham Bunthai, an herb seller who traveled from the northern province of Chiang Mai. He said Thaksin's universal health care scheme saved his mother's life.
"Some villagers told me I'm crazy. I'm willing to be crazy today for their prosperity in the future," he said.
Thailand has been in constant political turmoil since early 2006, when demonstrations accusing Thaksin of corruption and abuse of power began. In 2008, when Thaksin's political allies came back to power for a year, his opponents occupied the prime minister's office compound for three months and seized Bangkok's two airports for a week.
Recent polls in Bangkok indicate a large segment of the population, irrespective of their political beliefs, is fed up with the protests, which have battered the economy, including the lucrative tourism industry.
The Red Shirts' last major protest in Bangkok last April deteriorated into rioting that left two people dead, more than 120 people injured and buses burned on major thoroughfares. The army was called in to quash the unrest.
Many embassies have warned their citizens to stay away from areas of the city where violence could erupt.