Thousands of anti-government “Red Shirt” protesters defied a state of emergency in Thailand’s capital to stage their first major demonstration since their street protests were ended by a deadly military crackdown in May.
The activities on Sunday marked the fourth anniversary of a 2006 military coup that toppled former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The Red Shirts include many Thaksin supporters as well as activists opposed to the military’s interference in politics.
Thousands of people gathered at Bangkok’s Rajprasong intersection, a glitzy shopping district that was occupied by the group from April to May. The crowd, exuberant but peaceful, spilled into the street and snarled traffic, while hundreds of police stood by in case of trouble.
“This showed that a large number of Red Shirt people, despite the emergency decree being in effect, are still passionate and want to express their feelings,” said Sombat Boonngamanong, a Red Shirt organizer.
The Red Shirt protests earlier this year, which demanded that Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva call early elections, deteriorated into violence that turned many parts of Bangkok into a virtual war zone. About 90 people were killed, mostly demonstrators.
When troops moved in with live ammunition to clear the demonstrators on May 19, hardcore protesters set fire to almost three dozen buildings around Bangkok, including the country’s biggest luxury shopping mall and the stock exchange. Most top Red Shirt leaders were detained.
Bangkok remains under a state of emergency imposed in April that gives the military broad powers and soldiers have been deployed at key locations over the past two weeks as the government warned of possible violence around the coup anniversary.
Sunday’s protesters shouted “People died here” and “Abhisit, get out” before the demonstration culminated in the lighting of candles and release of balloons to honor those who died in the earlier protests.
Among those taking part was Boonchuai Rumpai, 58, a housewife from Ayutthaya who participated in the previous demonstrations.
“I want democracy back. I want new elections,” she said.
But one thing that has changed, she said, is “I don’t want to see any more coffins.”
“We have learned our lessons and we must bring ourselves out of this shadow,” said Sombat, referring to the violence that marred the earlier protests.
Thaksin was ousted by the Sept. 19, 2006, coup after being accused of corruption and disrespect to Thailand’s constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The army acted after a series of protests and court rulings nearly paralyzed Thaksin’s ability to govern but the coup has sharply polarized society.
Thaksin is living in exile abroad after fleeing in 2008 ahead of a corruption conviction.