Masses of protesters swarm into Thai capital

TENS of thousands of red-shirted protesters rallied in Thailand’s capital yesterday to press their demand that the government dissolve parliament or face massive demonstrations in the city.

The protesters, many from the impoverished northeast and north, want Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to call new elections, which they believe will allow their political allies to regain power. The crowd estimated by police at more than 100,000 rallied peacefully under a blazing sun. Loud pop music and rural delicacies such as spicy papaya salad competed with fiery rhetoric for their attention.

Bangkok’s notorious traffic was light and businesses were shuttered as many citizens feared a repeat of past violence during the four-day demonstrations, which officially began yesterday but have been building for two days as caravans of protesters poured into the city. The demonstrators stressed they will use only peaceful means.

Many of the protesters, popularly known as the Red Shirts, back former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup for alleged corruption and abuse of power. They believe Abhisit came to power illegitimately with the connivance of the military and other parts of the traditional ruling class who were alarmed by Thaksin’s popularity, particularly among the poor.

Police general Wichai Sangprapai, commander in the main protest area, estimated the number of protesters could reach 150,000.

“We’re demanding the government give up its administrative power by dissolving parliament and returning power to the people,” protest leader Veera Musikapong told a sea of red-shirted followers. “We’re giving the government 24 hours.”

The protesters, formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, said they will march on key locations in the city if the government fails to respond, including the headquarters of the 11th Infantry Regiment, where Abhisit has been living in recent days.

In his weekly radio address yesterday, Abhisit indicated he had no plans to dissolve the legislature.

“Dissolution and calls for resignations are normal in a democratic system. But we have to make sure the dissolution of parliament will solve the problem and won’t make the next election troublesome,” Abhisit said.

He also denied rumours that a military coup was possible and said he would not impose a state of emergency that would give the army broad powers to deal with the protests.

A force of 50,000 soldiers, police and other security personnel was mobilised in the capital area.

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