Tens of thousands of protesters converged on Bangkok's shopping district on Saturday, forcing major retailers to close while accusing authorities of neglecting the poor on the 21st day of a mass rally seeking snap elections.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's embattled government deployed 50,000 soldiers, police and other security personnel in the city after caravans of the anti-government, red-shirted protesters travelled from rural areas to the Thai capital.
At least half a dozen shopping malls including Central World -- the second-largest shopping complex in Southeast Asia -- shut their doors in response to protests and threats by the "red shirts" to stay overnight in the usually bustling area popular with tourists and Bangkok's upper and middle classes.
"We cannot let Mr. Abhisit rule the country any longer," Jatuporn Prompan, a "red shirt" leader, told the crowd.
"We say it has no legitimacy to rule."
Backed by Thailand's powerful military, Abhisit has said a peaceful poll now would be difficult given the tensions and has offered to dissolve parliament in December, a year early.
The mostly rural and urban poor protesters are demanding he call immediate elections and threatening more protests in coming days, extending a mass street rally that began on March 14 when up to 150,000 "red shirts" converged on Bangkok's old quarter.
Analysts say British-born Abhisit would likely lose an election if it were held now, raising investment risks in Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy following a USD 1.6 billion surge of foreign investment in Thai stocks over the past month on expectations Abhisit will survive the showdown.
Adding to the tension, more than 1,000 people who oppose the protesters held their own rally on Friday, donning pink shirts and saying the "red shirts" were unreasonable in their demands to dissolve parliament and were making life difficult in Bangkok.
'SEA CHANGE IN THAI POLITICS'
"It's difficult to say where the movement is going, whether or not it will become more permanent," said Chris Baker, a political analyst who has written several books on Thai politics.
"But the fact that this many people were mobilised for so long shows the sea change in Thai politics over the last few years," he added.
The "red shirts", supporters of twice-elected and now fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, say Abhisit has no popular mandate and came to power illegitimately, heading a coalition the military cobbled together after courts dissolved a pro-Thaksin party that led the previous coalition government.
They chafe against what they say is an unelected elite preventing allies of the self-exiled Thaksin from returning to power through a vote. Adding to their anger, Thailand's top court seized USD 1.4 billion of Thaksin's assets last month, saying it was accrued through abuse of power.
Abhisit says his coalition was voted into office by the same multi-party parliament that previously picked two Thaksin-allied governments.
Analysts say both sides want to be in power in October for two politically sensitive events -- an annual military reshuffle and the passing of the national budget.
The budget gives the government room to roll out welfare policies to court rural voters whose discontent is at the heart of the protests and who now back the Thaksin-allied opposition Puea Thai Party. It also gives whoever is in power a chance to allocate money to the powerful military and ministries.
The military reshuffle is even more crucial, allowing the government to strengthen its hold on power by promoting allies in the powerful security forces. It's also a sensitive time when internal military power struggles can ripple into politics.