Thai opposition protesters stage major rally
Tens of thousands of anti-government "Red Shirts" protested in Bangkok Saturday in a major show of strength to mark a year since the start of a mass rally in the capital that turned deadly.
Thailand's rival political factions are gearing up for elections expected by July, in a country still deeply divided following the worst civil violence in decades last year which left about 90 people dead, mostly civilians.
Police estimated that about 35,000 red-shirted supporters joined Saturday's gathering, which was addressed by their hero, fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
"When you are ready for me to come back and serve you, I'll be ready," Thaksin told the crowd by video link from an undisclosed location overseas.
"Please help the Puea Thai (opposition party) win a landslide victory and then I'll solve problems and fix the economy and bring prosperity in six months," he said.
Thaksin, a former billionaire telecoms tycoon, is hailed by the Reds for his policies for the poor while in power, but seen by the Thai ruling elite as authoritarian, corrupt and a threat to the revered monarchy,
He faces terrorism charges in Thailand, accused of bankrolling last year's anti-government protests and of instigating unrest.
Saturday's gathering near Bangkok's Democracy Monument was one of the largest since May 2010, when troops firing live rounds and backed by armoured vehicles moved in to end a two-month-long demonstration by the Reds.
But it was well short of the 100,000 people who joined last year's protests at their peak.
That rally triggered a series of bloody street clashes between armed troops and protesters in the heart of Bangkok in April and May of last year.
After the crackdown, dozens of buildings were set ablaze across Bangkok, including a major shopping complex and the stock exchange.
"Many people I knew died last year so I want to call for justice. I hope this government goes," said Prapai Wichianchod, a 72-year-old retiree from northern Kampaengpetch province.
Demonstrators at Saturday's rally wore T-shirts saying "Reds never die" and waved placards with slogans including "No Justice, no unity".
Many seek the return of Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and lives overseas to avoid a jail sentence imposed in absentia for corruption.
"I want to express my desire to fight. I voted in an election but the military seized power and stole my rights," said Supoj Ardsak, a 25-year-old company worker from Bangkok. "Now I want to call for my rights back."
National police spokesman Major General Prawut Thavornsiri said almost 3,500 officers were deployed for the demonstration and more were on standby.
The movement views Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government as an unelected elite because it came to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote with military backing, after a court ruling threw out the previous administration.
Abhisit said on Friday he would dissolve the lower house of parliament by early May, paving the way for what is expected to be a hard-fought election in late June or early July.
The government has said it hopes the election brings a return to normality, but the Red Shirts are sceptical about prospects of a fair vote.
"If there's no cheating by the government side and no dirty tricks in the election then there will be no political crisis," said Waraporn Puriladapun, a 53-year-old protester from Bangkok.
"But I think there will be cheating because some people are obsessed by power".
Some fear the military may even intervene in a country which has seen 18 actual or attempted coups since 1932, although Abhisit has rejected the idea.
"I'm 90 percent sure there'll be a coup before the election. I have a feeling," said protester Supoj.