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NEWS UPDATES 13 March 2010

Thai govt wary of violence as red-shirt protesters enter Bangkok

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Thousands of red-shirted anti-government demonstrators converged on the Thai capital from the north and northeast Saturday, vowing to oust the government in a mass do-or-die display of muscle, the Associated Press and local news reports.

Although protest leaders stressed they would not resort to violence, many businesses closed down, social events were canceled and Bangkok's normally chaotic traffic was unusually light.

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

The "million-man march," which is to climax Sunday, is regarded by some as the last chance for ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to return to Thailand.

The "Red Shirts," formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, are made up of followers of Thaksin, along with other people who oppose the 2006 military coup that toppled him.

Forcing the government out of power, Thaksin loyalists say, could pave the way for his pardon and return. Thaksin, who resides in Dubai, faces a two-year prison term for abuse of power.

Thousands of protesters arrived in the sprawling capital Saturday after traveling in trucks, buses and motorcycles from the Thaksin heartland - the impoverished rural northeast and the north, where the fugitive leader was born.

In Wang Noi, to the north of the city, a line of protesters in vehicles stretched about four miles (seven kilometers) along a highway as security personnel slowly searched the arrivals. Traffic jams on the highway began as far as 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the city.

Government spokesman Panithan Wattanayakorn said protesters were being provided with free bus rides from provincial areas to Bangkok, but vehicles driven by the demonstrators had to be parked in designated areas.

"In general we think the peacekeeping operation has been going well. We will have to be more cautious at the rally tonight to prevent any possible violence," he said.

The demonstrators want Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to call new elections, which they believe will allow their political allies to regain power. They believe Abhisit came to power illegitimately with the connivance of the military and other parts of the traditional Thai ruling class who were jealous and fearful of Thaksin's popularity while in office in 2001-2006.

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

Thailand has been in a state of constant political turmoil since early 2006, when demonstrations accusing Thaksin of corruption and abuse of power began. In 2008, when Thaksin's political allies came back to power for a year, his opponents occupied the prime minister's office compound for three months and seized Bangkok's two airports for a week.

Recent polls in Bangkok indicate a large segment of the population, irrespective of their political beliefs, is fed up with the protests, which have battered the economy, including the lucrative tourism industry.


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