BANGKOK, March 14, 2010 (AFP) - Tens of thousands of red-shirted supporters of deposed Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra were rallying amid tight security in Bangkok Sunday to demand the government's resignation.
Supporters of deposed Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra shout slogans as they protest the government in Bangkok on March 14, 2010. AFP photo
Organisers of the protest said more than 100,000 had converged on the capital by midday, while police overseeing a huge security operation said the crowds numbered between 50,000 and 60,000.
Travelling by road and river, mainly from the rural poor north and northeast of Thailand, the protesters arrived in their their trademark colourful tops with red flags, banners and foot-shaped clappers.
A 50,000-strong security force, including riot police and soldiers, has been sent out under a strict law enacted to control the rally, amid fears that the demonstrators could turn violent.
Ahead of the official start of the protest at noon, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said on his weekly television programme that he had no plans to use force at the rally, which was so far "peaceful and orderly."
The Reds are calling for Abhisit's government to step down and hold fresh elections because they claim it is elitist and undemocratic, but the premier rejected their demands, saying: "I have my right to complete my term.'
Meanwhile, Red Shirt leaders rallied the crowds on Sunday morning from their main stage, set up near government offices in the city's historic quarter.
"Reds over the land call on the government to return power to the people and to dissolve the house immediately. We will hold out here and wait for an answer within 24 hours," core leader Veera Musikapong told the cheering crowds.
"We have made it clear from the beginning that we want democracy with the king as the head of state," said another senior Red, Jatuporn Prompan, referring to the revered Thai monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The government has enacted the strict Internal Security Act for the demonstrations, allowing authorities to set up checkpoints, impose curfews and limit movements.
Abhisit has warned the public not to be complacent about the potential for violence, cancelling his own weekend trip to Australia because of the protest.
The rallies come two weeks after Thailand's top court confiscated 1.4 billion dollars of Thaksin's assets, and are the latest chapter in political turmoil that began when he 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 encouraging his supporters to attend the rally using text messages and his Twitter page.
On Saturday he left his main base in Dubai to travel to Europe, where he said he was meeting his two daughters.
The Red Shirts mainly represent Thailand's rural poor, who benefited from Thaksin's populist policies and say Abhisit's government is elitist, military-backed and has ignored their democratic rights.
Thaksin, by contrast, is loathed by the rival royalist Yellow Shirts, backed by Bangkok's establishment, who accuse him of corruption and of disloyalty 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 said the turnout on Sunday would be key to deciding whether the Red Shirts have any chance of ousting the government before Thailand's next polls, due in December 2011.
The Red Shirts have held a number of protests since Abhisit came to power in December 2008, after a court decision removed Thaksin's allies from government following an airport blockade by the Yellow Shirts.
Here is a timeline of events since Thaksin's first election victory in 2001:
-- 2001 --
January: Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party, formed three years earlier, wins most seats in a general election. The party's platform includes a focus on healthcare and debt relief for the rural poor.
-- 2003 --
January: Thaksin launches controversial "war on drugs," which rights groups say leads to more than 2,200 extrajudicial killings.
-- 2004 --
January: Start of insurgency in Thailand's restive Muslim-majority south, on which Thaksin takes a tough line.
-- 2005 --
February 6: Thaksin is re-elected, becoming Thailand's first prime minister to complete a full term in office.
-- 2006 --
January 23: Thaksin's family announces the tax-free sale of their 49 percent stake in telecoms giant Shin Corp to Singapore's state-owned investment unit Temasek for more than 73 billion baht. The move sparks months of protests by the royalist People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), known as the Yellow Shirts.
September 19: The army seizes power in a bloodless coup as Thaksin attends a session of the UN General Assembly in New York. More than a year of military rule follows and Thaksin remains in exile.
-- 2007 --
June: Anti-graft panel freezes Thaksin's assets.
December: The People Power Party, comprising Thaksin's allies, wins elections and forms a coalition government in February 2008.
-- 2008 --
May: The PAD relaunches street protests.
August: Thaksin and his wife, Pojaman -- who had returned to Thailand in February -- flee again, saying they will not get a fair trial on corruption charges.
October: Clashes between police and demonstrators kill two people and wound nearly 500. A court sentences Thaksin in absentia to two years in jail for conflict of interest.
November-December: Thousands of PAD supporters blockade Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang airports.
December: The Constitutional Court dissolves the People Power Party, forcing out Thaksin's brother-in-law, Somchai Wongsawat as Prime Minister. British-born Abhisit Vejjajiva of the rival Democrat Party becomes premier.
-- 2009 --
January-March: "Red Shirts" loyal to Thaksin hold protests against Abhisit's government.
April: Red Shirts storm the venue of an Asian summit in the beach resort of Pattaya. Riots and a state of emergency in Bangkok ensue, leaving two people dead.
November: Cambodia appoints Thaksin as a government economic adviser, angering Thailand. Thaksin visits Phnom Penh and Cambodian leader Hun Sen refuses to extradite him.
-- 2010 --
February 26: Thailand's Supreme Court decides 1.4-billion-dollars of Thaksin's wealth, more than half his frozen fortune, is to be seized by the state, after ruling that he had abused his power.
Nine judges ruled he could hold on to the remainder of the money they say he earned before becoming prime minister.
March 14: Tens of thousands of Red Shirts gather in Bangkok to hold a rally calling for Abhisit's government to step down, claiming it is elitist and undemocratic.