Tens of thousands of red-shirted protesters threatened to force soldiers from the historic heart of Thailand's capital, raising tensions in what so far has been a nonviolent bid to bring down the government.
Riding on motorcycles and in pickup trucks, the protesters traveled in a noisy parade to seven locations including the Bangkok zoo and Buddhist temples being used by soldiers as temporary camps. Some of the soldiers packed their belongings and left to avoid clashes, drawing raucous cheers from the protesters, who are entering their third week on the streets of the capital. "We will storm the places where soldiers camp out. We'll shake the fence. We'll cut the barbed wire. We'll march through the barricades. We'll march for democracy!" a leader of the "Red Shirt" protesters, Nattawut Saikua, shouted to the crowd. "This is where we'll end military suppression. This is where we'll create democracy."
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has called in thousands of troops to guard Parliament, government buildings and other key locations amid fears of violence. Protesters have denounced the show of military force as unfitting for a democracy and said their goal is to peacefully pressure the soldiers to return to their barracks. However, Saturday's protest took a more confrontational stance than previous rallies.
The protesters accuse Abhisit of taking power through illegitimate means with the support of the military and are demanding he dissolve Parliament and call new elections, which he has repeatedly rejected. Abhisit has been sleeping and working from an army base since the protests started March 12. "It is not our aim today to use violence. We'll be visiting these soldiers as friends," said another protest leader, Veera Muksikapong. "They would know that we come in good will." Leaders of the protest movement _ formally known as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship _ have increasingly portrayed the demonstrations as a struggle between Thailand's impoverished, mainly rural masses and a Bangkok-based elite impervious to their plight.
The group largely consists of supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup for alleged corruption, and pro-democracy activists who opposed the army takeover. Critics say the protesters are merely pawns serving Thaksin's ambitions to return to power.
Hours before Saturday's protest began, a small explosion went off outside the Bangkok customs department without causing any injuries, The Nation newspaper reported on its Web site. It was the latest in a series of small explosions that have coincided with the protests. While no one has claimed responsibility, the timing and targets suggest the attacks are related to the political standoff. The government has blamed the blasts on people trying to stir up tensions, while the Red Shirts say they are being carried out to discredit their protest movement.
The protests have drawn as many as 100,000 people. The group drew international attention with a "blood sacrifice" in which it collected blood from supporters and splattered it at the gates of Abhisit's office, the headquarters of his ruling party and his private residence.
They believe Abhisit took office with the connivance of the military and other parts of the traditional ruling class and that only new elections can restore integrity to Thai democracy. Thaksin's allies took power in a December 2007 election but were forced out by court rulings. Abhisit's Democrat Party then rallied the support of enough lawmakers to form a coalition government in December 2008.