Tens of thousands of “Red Shirt” anti-government protesters rallied on Saturday in Thailand’s capital in a show of strength as the country prepares for an electoral battle.
The demonstration came just a day after Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said he would dissolve parliament by early May, with elections expected by July — at least six months early.
The Red Shirt rally marked the anniversary of the start of their two-month protest last year that deteriorated into a violent confrontation that left 91 people dead and more than 1,400 injured.
They had been demanding early elections, claiming Abhisit came to power through undemocratic means.
Saturday’s gathering at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument was probably their biggest so far this year. Police spokesman Major General Prawut Thavornsiri estimated the crowd at 30,000.
The rally and Abhisit’s election announcement — which fell short of a pledge — set up a new round in a political war that has been raging since 2006, when the military toppled former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a coup after months of protests alleging he was corrupt and had treated the country’s esteemed King Bhumibol Adulyadej with disrespect.
Thaksin’s supporters came back to win elections in December 2007, only to be forced from power a year later by a combination of judicial and legislative maneuvering.
Thaksin’s supporters, many from the country’s rural majority who were wooed by his populist policies, believe the country’s ruling establishment — the royal palace, the military and Bangkok’s urban upper class — were fearful of losing their wealth and privilege under a new political order.
Thaksin’s opponents and supporters have both staged aggressive street protests, the most violent being the Red Shirt demonstrations of last year, which ended with the burning of a major shopping mall and other public buildings as the army crushed the protesters.
Saturday’s rally was also the first joint appearance on stage of the group’s top leaders since they were freed on bail late last month after being detained on terrorism charges last May. They have said they will run in the next elections, partly to gain parliamentary immunity against future arrest.
Thaksin also spoke to the crowd by video link from overseas. He fled into exile in 2008 to escape a jail term on a corruption conviction. He insists he was a victim of political persecution.
The Red Shirts also include some influential left-wing activists who share a populist agenda and anti-elite sentiment with the Thaksin loyalists.
The Red Shirts have repeatedly emphasized the issue of class differences, despite their hero Thaksin being a billionaire. Red Shirt rallies are typically raucous and earthy.
Abhisit’s Democrat Party set up a sharp contrast earlier in the week when it bought two hours of national television time to broadcast a glitzy banquet at which it claimed to have raised 750 million baht (US$24.6 million).
Nattawut Saikua, a Red Shirt leader, told reporters at the protest site that the group would struggle for justice for members killed, injured or detained during last year’s unrest.
“If there is a dissolution of parliament and the conditions for general elections are met, we are ready to push the Red Shirt people to fight in the election battle as well,” he said.