Thousands of red-shirted, anti-government demonstrators converged on the Thai capital from the north and northeast today, vowing to oust the government in a mass, do-or-die display of muscle.
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.
The "million-man march," which is to climax tomorrow, 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 criminal charges for abuse of power.
Several thousand protesters started gathering peacefully in Bangkok yesterday. This morning, far larger numbers were seen on the outskirts of the sprawling city arriving in trucks, buses and motorcycles from the Thaksin heartland — the impoverished, rural northeast and the north, where the fugitive leader was born.
An AP photographer at Wang Noi, to the north of the city, saw one line of protesters stretching some 4 miles along a highway while security personnel slowly searched the arrivals. Traffic jams on the highway began as far as 30 miles 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 seek to have Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva call a new election, which they believe will allow their political allies to regain power. They believe that 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.
Recent independent polls in Bangkok have indicated that a large segment of the population, irrespective of their political beliefs, is fed up with the protests, which have battered the economy in general and the lucrative tourism industry in particular.
Thailand has been in a state of constant political turmoil since early 2006, when demonstrations accusing Thaksin of corruption and abuse of power were launched. 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.
"As long as there is no justice, Thailand cannot be united," Jaran Ditthapichai, a Red Shirt leader, told the crowd outside the police headquarters Friday. "We want the power to be returned to the people."
The Red Shirts have vowed to keep their protest nonviolent — and some in Bangkok carried single stem roses that they handed to policemen. However, the group's last major protest in Bangkok in April deteriorated into rioting that left two people killed, more than 120 people injured and buses burned on major thoroughfares. The army was called in to quash the unrest.
The government, while saying it will honor the right to gather for peaceful protest, has set up roadblocks at all main access points to the capital, and has been stopping and searching cars for weapons. A force of 50,000 soldiers, police and other security was mobilized for the Bangkok area.
The Red Shirts say they hope to gather 400,000-600,000 people to all come together tomorrow on Bangkok's Rajdamnoen Avenue, a venue that has been the site of the country's most important political protests of the past 50 years.
Red Shirt leaders have been vague about how long they hope to keep the protest running, preferring to say they believe the government will step down and call new polls within just a few days.