BANGKOK: Thousands of Thai pro-government “Red Shirts” massed Saturday in a show of support for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, warning that they would resist attempts to oust her through the courts.
The rally comes as Thailand’s long-running political crisis looks set to enter a new and potentially turbulent phase with the expected indictment of Yingluck — a move likely to infuriate her supporters.
More than 3,000 police and troops were mobilised for the demonstration on the western outskirts of Bangkok, following months of political violence in which 24 people have been killed and hundreds wounded.
Opposition protesters who have been camped out in Bangkok for months want to install an unelected premier to oversee reforms aimed at clamping down on corruption and reining in the Shinawatra family’s political dominance.
Drawn mostly from the poor but populous north and northeast, the rival Red Shirts say they will not accept the removal of another democratically elected government by a Bangkok-based royalist establishment backed by the judiciary and the military.
“We have shown the elite that they will never turn Thailand into a dictatorship,” Red Shirts chairman Jatuporn Prompan told the cheering crowd.
“The Red Shirts will fight to the end,” he added. “Whenever a coup takes place or an illegal prime minister is appointed, then they will have to face the Red Shirts.”
The red-clad movement’s huge street rallies against the previous government in 2010 resulted in clashes and a military crackdown that left dozens dead.
Thailand has been rocked by years of sometimes bloody street protests by supporters and opponents of fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s elder brother who was ousted in a coup in 2006.
Red Shirt supporters arrived in buses and trucks for what Red Shirt leaders hoped will be their biggest show of strength in the months-long crisis.
Some held up placards reading: “We don’t want coup d’etat”.
“I want to see justice. I want the country to have democracy,” said Keatisak Thaweerit, 46, who hails from northeast Thailand.
The authorities expected up to 200,000 Red Shirts to join the two-day rally, Paradorn Pattanatabut, a security adviser to the premier, told AFP.
Yingluck faces a slew of legal charges that her supporters see as an attempted power grab, including alleged neglect of duty linked to a subsidised rice scheme and accusations of abuse of power over the transfer of a top security official.
Both cases could lead to her removal from office within weeks.
The rival rallies have highlighted the political fault lines that have riven Thai society since Thaksin’s overthrow by royalist generals.
The telecoms tycoon-turned-politician, who clashed with the establishment, has traditionally enjoyed strong support in the northern half of the kingdom.
The ousted premier, who fled overseas in 2008 to avoid jail for a corruption conviction, is hated by many Thais in Bangkok and the south who accuse him of corruption and nepotism.
It is also unclear whether Thaksin still commands the same loyalty in northern Thailand as in the past.
Some Red Shirts were upset by a move by Yingluck’s party, since abandoned, to push through a sweeping political amnesty that would have absolved officials responsible for the 2010 deaths, while also allowing Thaksin’s return.
Rice farmers, many of whom are traditionally staunch Thaksin supporters, are also waiting for payments under the flagship government subsidy scheme beset by financial losses and corruption allegations.
Thaksin’s critics say he uses taxpayers’ money to buy the loyalty of rural voters through such populist policies.
But some observers believe the resolve of the Red Shirts tells a different narrative to the oft-repeated one in Bangkok of an uneducated movement manipulated by Thaksin’s money.
“This is an emerging-class… a new middle class as a result of around 20 years of political and economic change,” said Yukti Mukdawijitra, an academic at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Thammasat University.
“These long-term conditions are understood by the Red Shirts. They understand they have to protect their power through the ballot box,” he added.
The Constitutional Court last month annulled a February general election disrupted by opposition demonstrators, leaving Thailand in a legislative stalemate with only a caretaker government.