BANGKOK – Thailand’s capital was braced for mass rival rallies on Saturday as opposition protesters marched on key communications firms after vowing a final push against the premier, while pro-government demonstrators converged on Bangkok.
Defiant demonstrators have besieged key government buildings in Bangkok in the biggest street protests since mass rallies in 2010 degenerated into the kingdom’s worst civil strife in decades.
The protesters — a mix of royalists, southerners and the urban middle class sometimes numbering in their tens of thousands — are united by their loathing of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra in the month-long rallies.
The controversial former telecoms tycoon was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and lives in self-imposed exile, but he is widely believed to be the real power behind the embattled government of his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Anti-government protesters occupied parts of Telephone Organization of Thailand (TOT) offices near their base at a key government complex in the outskirts of Bangkok Saturday, holding a cheerful picnic in the grounds.
They also briefly gathered around Communications Authority of Thailand (CAT), another key state telecoms firm.
“My fight strategy is to march empty handed. I feel tomorrow we will win,” protester Sanit Ounjai, a 45-year-old rubber farmer from southern Thailand, told AFP.
Demonstrators have declared Sunday a “day of victory”, with plans to gather near the heavily guarded Government House, besiege more important buildings — even Bangkok’s zoo.
Protesters are demanding the end of the “Thaksin regime” and want to replace the government with an unelected “people’s council”.
The pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” movement also stepped up their rally in the capital Saturday, vowing to protect the government.
“Red Shirts who do not want our country pushed into anarchy will be here,” Thanawut Wichaidit, a spokesman for the group, told AFP, adding that thousands were expected to head to the capital.
The Reds have gathered in a stadium in Bangkok for a week, but have so far shown no intention of taking to the streets.
Thaksin is adored by many of the country’s rural and urban working class but hated by many southerners, middle-class Thais and the Bangkok elite, who see him as corrupt and a threat to the monarchy.
He remains a hugely divisive figure seven years after he was deposed by royalist generals. Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election for more than a decade but Yingluck has given no indication that she is thinking of calling fresh polls as a way out of the crisis.
With free food and a carnival atmosphere, opposition demonstrators have massed at several locations around the capital, occupying the finance ministry since Monday.
Their numbers have fallen sharply since an estimated crowd of up to 180,000 people joined an opposition rally on Sunday.
But turnout is expected to spike over the weekend as organisers seek a final push ahead of celebrations for revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday on December 5, which is traditionally marked in an atmosphere of calm and respect.
Demonstrators on Friday forced open the gates of the compound of the army headquarters in Bangkok and occupied the lawn inside for several hours, calling on the military to support their fight to bring down the government.
It was the latest in a string of provocative moves targeting a symbol of state power, which have made headlines but failed to rattle the government into acting to disperse their rallies.
“The prime minister has given clear orders for authorities to deal leniently with protesters and not to use violence,” a deputy prime minister Pracha Promnog said on television Saturday.
Yingluck’s Puea Thai party came to power in 2011 elections on a wave of Thaksin support, after a bloody 2010 military crackdown on Red Shirt protests under the previous government left some 90 people dead.
In a statement released Friday, army chief Prayuth Chan-O-Cha urged protesters to respect “the democratic process under the law”, urging people to come together ahead of the king’s birthday.
The generals are traditionally seen as staunch defenders of the monarchy with close links to its supporters in the royalist “Yellow Shirt” protest movement — the arch-rivals of the Red Shirts.
But they have so far shown little appetite for getting involved in the latest standoff.
The protests began on October 30 in response to a ruling party amnesty plan that could have allowed Thaksin’s return, and have snowballed despite the Senate’s rejection of the bill.