BANGKOK (AFP) – Thailand's security forces braced for possible violence Saturday as tens of thousands of protesters loyal to deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra headed to Bangkok for a mass anti-government rally.
A 50,000-strong security force, including soldiers, patrolled the streets and manned checkpoints into the city, in an effort to ward off demonstrators intent on inciting trouble in their bid to topple the government.
|Supporters of deposed Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra greet each other as thousands of them leave Thaksin's home city Chiang Mai for Bangkok in a convoy of vehicles on March 12. AFP photo|
Organisers insist the protests will be peaceful, but the government has enacted the strict Internal Security Act to monitor the rally, allowing authorities to set up military checkpoints, impose curfews and limit movements.
"We are watching out for possible incidents. We don't want to exaggerate but small numbers of people may try to cause incidents... like throwing hand grenades," government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn told AFP.
Wearing trademark red shirts, around 6,500 protesters attended early demonstrations on Friday that passed without incident, Panitan said, while thousands in the rural north set off for Bangkok for the main event on Sunday.
Red Shirt organisers set up a rally stage near government ministry buildings on Saturday, but the bulk of protesters were expected to arrive during the evening, with the protest officially beginning at midday on Sunday.
The government predicts 100,000 supporters of Thaksin will turn up for the rally, but the Red Shirts say the figure will be nearer 600,000.
The protests come two weeks after Thailand's top court confiscated 1.4 billion dollars of Thaksin's assets, and are the latest chapter in a political crisis that has beset Thailand since Thaksin was toppled in a 2006 coup.
Thaksin, who has been living mostly in Dubai to escape a two-year jail term for corruption at home, has been egging on his supporters using text messages and his Twitter page.
"Thank you for your dedication.... I want to give my support to the people in the north," he told his followers on Twitter Saturday, before announcing that he was about to fly from Dubai to Europe to see his two daughters.
Exact numbers of people travelling from the north were not yet available, officials said, but police said at least 14,000 protesters departed Thaksin's home city Chiang Mai while the Reds said 10,000 had left northeast Udon Thani.
The protest is set to be the biggest since the Red Shirts rioted in Bangkok in April, leaving two dead and scores injured.
The Red Shirts mainly represent Thailand's rural poor, who benefited from Thaksin's populist policies and say the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is elitist, military-backed and has ignored their democratic rights.
The Red Shirts want Abhisit to stand down and call new elections, but he has rejected their call and cancelled a weekend trip to Australia because of the rally.
Thaksin, meanwhile, is loathed by the rival royalist "Yellow Shirts" backed by Bangkok's establishment, who accuse him of corruption and of insufficient loyalty to the revered royal family.
Thirty-five countries have issued travel warnings for Thailand because of the protests, according to the country's tourism authority.
Analysts say the number of Red Shirts who actually turn up will be key to deciding whether they have any chance of pushing out the government before Thailand's next elections, due in December 2011.