Protesters converge on Thai capital

Swelling crowds of anti-government
protesters swarming in central Bangkok cheered and rattled their plastic
clappers this afternoon as one of their leaders told the Thai Government to
dissolve parliament within 24 hours or face the consequences.

Tens of thousands of protesters
from the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, better known as Red
Shirts, filled streets around the protest site yesterday to demand the
resignation of Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Prime Minister.

They had arrived by boat, van, bus,
coach and pick-up truck from all over Thailand to insist on political change
and fresh elections, and many said they were ready to stay on the streets until
they achieved their aim.

“We demand the Government give up
administrative power by dissolving the parliament and returning power to the
people,” said Veera Musikapong, one of the protest leaders, from a central
stage at the site, warning that demonstrators would march to key locations in
Bangkok if their demands were not met.

Pisanoo Limpiwan, a delivery man
from a village 350 miles south of Bangkok, said he had come to Bangkok because
“the Government is not correct”.

The “Red Shirts” believe
the Government, led by Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Prime Minister, is illegitimate
because it came to power by virtue of defections from the opposition, rather
than by winning an election.

Mr Pisanoo said it had taken him
six hours to get to Bangkok on the bus, and his wife had stayed at home. She
did not agree with Mr Pisanoo’s political views, and she was worried that the
neighbours did not either. “She said this is not acceptable,” Mr Pisanoo said,
waving has arm at the thronging red shirts. “She thinks differently from me.”

Mr Abhisit used his weekly
television programme this morning to tell Thais that he had no intention of
using force to deal with the Red Shirts, and would not declare a state of
emergency.

He said that he did not mind if the
rally lasted for a week, or even a month, as long as it was peaceful. At the
demonstration it looked as though the Red Shirts were hunkering down for the
long haul – portable lavatories, tents, hammocks, food stalls, shade pavilions,
and two stages have been positioned along roads adjacent to the monument.

The protest site in central Bangkok
is surrounded by tourist attractions, banks and offices, and a prolonged
protest would further damage Thailand’s already battered international
reputation. This morning the streets around the site were quiet, with shuttered
shops and few vehicles on the roads.

Suthin Joseph Lee, a retiree from
Bangkok, said he had slept at the site last night, and he planned to stay until
the Government was ousted.

“We want our country to have
justice and democracy; the true and the real democracy,” he said.

Red Shirts had swarmed in from all
over Thailand, enduring traffic jams and hours-long waits at military
checkpoints to make their voices heard, he added. None were armed, except with
plastic bags filled with fermented fish sauce to throw at the enemy.

“We will throw it at those who
support Abhisit. We don’t like him. We don’t want him. The military carried him
to power,” he said.

The Red Shirts consider Mr.
Thaksin, ousted in 2006 and now living in exile in Dubai after fleeing
Thailand, as a hero of the poor and dispossessed despite his conviction for corruption
last year. The UAE authorities have in recent days reportedly warned Mr.
Thaksin to stop using Dubai as a base for political agitation, but he is nevertheless
expected to address his supporters via video link.

More than 50,000 security personnel
have been deployed to deal with any unrest, including 30,000 from the Army,
10,000 police officers and 10,000 “civil defence volunteers”, and the
Government has invoked the Internal Security Act, giving security forces
wide-ranging powers to institute curfews, ban gatherings, and deploy troops.

Suvarnabhumi airport is on high
alert as the authorities are determined to avoid a repeat of the occupation in
2008, when pro-government “Yellow Shirts” seized the airport to force political
change.

Leaders of the Red Shirts dubbed their protest the “million-man
march”, but yesterday Thai security agencies were estimating crowds of about
80,000, likely to swell further today.

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