Thailand braces for massive protest

Anti-government protesters massed around Thailand on Friday ahead of a march they hope will paralyze the capital and force Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to call new elections.

Anti-government organizers aim for 'million man march'

Supporters of Thailand's former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra gather near a checkpoint as they rally from Chiang Mai to Bangkok on Friday. ((Phichaiyong Mayerku/Reuters))

Anti-government protesters massed all over Thailand on Friday ahead of a march to Bangkok they hope will paralyze the capital and force Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to call new elections. Authorities mobilized 50,000 security officers and set up checkpoints around Bangkok.

More than 30 embassies and the Tourism Authority of Thailand have advised foreign visitors to stay away from the protests. Several schools were also closed.

The so-called Red Shirts, who support fugitive ex-leader Thaksin Shinawatra, have vowed to keep their protest non-violent — and some in Bangkok carried single stem roses that they handed to policemen.

Demonstrators started meeting around the country Friday, including at several locations in the capital. They plan to converge in a mass rally there on Sunday.

Anger over 2006 coup

The group includes followers of Thaksin and other people who oppose the 2006 military coup that toppled him. They believe Abhisit came to power illegitimately with the connivance of the military and other parts of the traditional Thai ruling class who were fearful of Thaksin's popularity while in office from 2001 to 2006.

Rioting erupted at the group's last major protest in Bangkok last April. Two people were killed, more than 120 people injured and buses burned on major thoroughfares. The army was called in to quash the unrest.

In a televised address, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban sought to assure an anxious public that they were not targets.

"So far, people in Bangkok can still live their lives normally," he said. "They should be on the lookout for violence but do not panic. There have been reports that targets would be government offices, not people's homes."

The government has set up roadblocks at all main access points to the capital, and has been stopping and searching cars for weapons.

Leaders of the mostly rural protest movement say they are aiming for a "million man march" and a blockade of government offices to protest what they call undemocratic rule that serves the urban elite.

"As long as there is no justice, Thailand cannot be united," Jaran Ditthapichai, a Red Shirt leader, told a crowd outside the police headquarters, which dispersed after a brief rally "We want the power to be returned to the people."