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NEWS UPDATES 7 March 2010

Thai capital braces for ‘red-shirt’ rally

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Supporters of Thailand's fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra started trying to build momentum Sunday for a mass rally next week that could decide the fate of their anti-government movement, AFP reported.

The so-called "Red Shirts" say they expect hundreds of thousands of people to gather in the capital Bangkok on March 14, just over two weeks after a court seized $1.4 billion of the deposed tycoon's fortune.

Organisers are holding a series of meetings beginning Sunday to motivate protesters across the country, most of them from the rural poor, who apparently resent what they see as an elitist and undemocratic government in Bangkok.

"I would like to urge those who love democracy, justice, equality, and those who think that I have been bullied without mercy and humanity, to join the rally," Thaksin wrote on Saturday on Twitter.

The rally promises to be the biggest since last April, when up to 100,000 Reds protested against current prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, followed by riots which left two people dead and derailed a major Asian summit.

The Reds have held a string of protests since another court decision removed Thaksin's allies from government and brought Abhisit to power in December 2008, after a blockade of Bangkok's airports by rival, royalist "Yellow Shirts".

Thaksin was toppled in a military coup in 2006 and is living in exile, mainly in Dubai, to avoid a two-year jail sentence for graft imposed in absentia. He has vowed to fight the confiscation of his wealth.

The country remains deeply divided between the largely Thaksin-loving Reds and the Yellows, who view Thaksin as corrupt and are backed by the Bangkok-based elites of the palace, military and bureaucracy.

On Sunday, provincial Red Shirt leaders were set to meet the rank-and-file in Rayong, a major industrial hub near Bangkok, with other meetings throughout the week in central, northern and western Thailand, organisers said.

"Our aim is to topple the government, to force them to make a choice between suppressing us and stepping down," senior Red Shirt leader Jaran Ditsatapichai told reporters earlier this week.

But the number of supporters they actually draw to Bangkok will be crucial in deciding whether the Reds have any chance of pushing out the government before Thailand's next elections, due in December 2011.

Paul Chambers, an expert on Thailand at Germany's Heidelberg University, said the demonstration and its ability to match last year's turn-out will be a "crucial event to prove whether their cause will persevere."

"Whether these numbers reach higher than 100,000 will be a good measure of their continuing political potential," Chambers added.

The Red Shirts said earlier this week that they expected anywhere between 400,000 and 600,000, with many coming from Thaksin's stronghold in the northeast in thousands of buses and pick-up trucks.

The government is deploying extra troops and police, set up checkpoints around the country to look for weapons and says it may impose harsh security laws if the protests become violent.

"Yet a violent outcome will only breathe new life into a Red Shirt movement looking to expand," said Chambers.

Their success will also depend on building support among Bangkok's traditionally pro-Yellow Shirt middle class, and in the ranks of Thailand's powerful army, which so far has backed Abhisit.

Abhisit himself has said he will push ahead with a trip to Australia from March 13 to 17.

"The Reds don't have big mobilisation power in Bangkok. They don't have the resources," said Arnaud Leveau of the Research Institute on Contemporary South-East Asia.

"They will have to put in place a huge logistical operation to get people in from the provinces and feed them when they are in Bangkok," he added.


 

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