BANGKOK, April 18, 2010 (AFP) - Thailand's pro-establishment "Yellow Shirt" movement gathered in their thousands on Sunday to discuss their response to month-long anti-government protests that left 23 dead in clashes last weekend.
The country is split between "Red Shirts", who largely support ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, and their yellow-clad rivals who hit the streets ahead of a 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin and again to see off his allies in 2008.
|Red Shirt anti-government protesters rest during an on going rally in the main shopping district in Bangkok on April 18, 2010. AFP photo|
The yellow protest group, backed by the country's elite, has kept a low profile since the Reds' mass rallies began in mid-March but began a meeting early Sunday to discuss the kingdom's troubles.
"We are having a meeting today because we know that now the country is in crisis," said Parnthep Pourpongpan, a spokesman for the group formally known as the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD).
"We have the PAD representatives from different provinces coming to analyse the situation and lay out the structure for long-term solutions. There are 3,000 to 5,000 people joining the meeting today," he said.
The Yellows' protests in 2008 culminated with a damaging blockade of the capital's main airports that stranded thousands of travellers.
As they met at a Bangkok university Sunday, the Reds were also meeting to discuss their next move, eights days on from deadly clashes with security forces that left 23 people dead and more than 800 injured.
The Reds, who are demanding snap elections, have since abandoned their rally spot close to where the violence took place to instead reinforce numbers in a Bangkok district which is home to luxury hotels and shopping malls.
Leaders of the Reds have said they would hand themselves in to police next month as they brace themselves for a new army push to disperse them from the key district.
They have so far ignored repeated calls by authorities to disperse from the commercial heartland, despite arrest warrants outstanding against core leaders.
"On May 15, 24 of us will surrender. All of the leaders," said one of the top Reds, Nattawut Saikuar, on Saturday. "For now the 24 of us will keep rallying to show sincerely that we won't run away," he said.
"I'm sure the order to suppress us will come out soon."
He said the plan was designed to avoid another attempt by security forces to forcibly arrest them, but added they would seek bail.
The mostly poor Reds accuse the government of elitism and being illegitimate as it came to power after a parliamentary vote that followed a controversial court verdict ousting Thaksin's allies.
The military has said it will make a renewed attempt to disperse the protesters but has given no further details of its plans.
Late Friday embattled Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva handed broader powers to his army chief Anupong Paojinda, after a bungled operation to arrest some protest leaders at a hotel in Bangkok's northern outskirts.
Earlier Friday commandos stormed a hotel where several Red Shirt leaders were hiding, but the mission ended in dramatic failure after the suspects fled, with one climbing down an electric cable from a third floor balcony.
The setback to the authorities came almost a week after the army tried in vain to clear an area of the capital of anti-government demonstrators, triggering the country's deadliest civil unrest in 18 years.
The government has asked the police's special investigation unit to probe the bloodshed, blaming "terrorists" for inciting violence and accusing Thaksin, who lives abroad to avoid a jail term for graft, of stoking the unrest.