Thai protesters target "hearts and minds" of Bangkok

Tens of thousands of opposition activists pressed ahead with anti-government protests on Friday, preparing for a new drive to win over Bangkok's politically powerful middle classes.

The demonstrators remained on the streets in Bangkok's historic heart, dancing to live folk music, listening to fiery speeches decrying the military's intervention in politics and planning Saturday's city-wide recruitment march.

Investors remain convinced there is no immediate danger to the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, backed by the majority in parliament. They have poured 35.3 billion baht (£726 million) into Thailand's stock market .SETI in the last month.

The bourse was up 2 per cent at a 20-month high on Friday, returning to positive territory after a day of profit-taking on Thursday snapped a six-day run of gains.

The "red-shirt" protesters plan to fan out across the city of 15 million people on motorcycles and pickup trucks on Saturday, handing out leaflets and calling on urban sympathisers to join their push to oust the government.

"We are asking Bangkok people to join our non-violent movement if they hate double standards and hypocrisy," said Weng Tojirakarn, a protest leader, adding that the group's street campaign will continue for at least another two weeks.

"I hope we have shown Bangkok that we are not seeking trouble and we hope people will join us if they hate minority rule."

Analysts said it would be a tough task.

"There is no case so far for the protest to gain mass support to overthrow the Abhisit government," Citigroup analyst Suchart Techaposai said in a research note.

But that is what the protest leaders are trying to change.

The mainly rural movement led by supporters of toppled and graft-convicted premier Thaksin Shinawatra is seeking to attract Bangkok middle classes, civil servants and rank-and-file soldiers and policemen to their battle against the government and the establishment elite, which include the military's top brass.

Their aim is to diversify their support base, strengthen their legitimacy and sustain a crowd that appears to be waning.

While few expect the rally to topple the government, a prolonged protest could start to undermine the leadership of a premier unable to visit his office, parliament, or his home, opting instead to stay at a fortified military compound.

Some of the most ardent "red shirts" are beginning to succumb to fatigue and leaders are seeking reinforcements. The number of protesters peaked at up to 150,000 on Sunday although tens of thousands still remain.

Many vowed to stay until the end, whenever that will be.

"There is no money at my farm. At least here, we are doing something important, and I'm not paid to be here," said Supalak Pumarin, from Udon Thani province, who, like many "red shirts", refutes common claims the masses were hired.

Convincing Bangkok residents to join their movement could prove difficult, especially given strong aversion to Thaksin, regarded by many in the capital as a corrupt autocrat.

Others remain unconvinced by a call for a "class war" by a former telecommunications tycoon living a lavish lifestyle in exile, mostly in Dubai.

"I don't think this government is effective but I cannot support a group which backs Thaksin," said Tanaporn Satittam, a 43-year-old Bangkok restaurant owner.

The common portrayal of the "red shirts" as a movement of uneducated, gullible bumpkins with a mob mentality deters others.

However, analysts said the support base for the campaign appeared to be diversifying.

"It's no longer rural versus urban and it has ceased to be the case for some time," said Charnvit Kasertsiri, a political historian.

"There is a lot of support for the reds even in Bangkok. The question is: Can they bring them out to the streets?"

Analysts say the "red shirts" need to be better organised and more united if they want an effective and prolonged rally.

Others point out that overthrowing a government is almost impossible in Thailand without intervention by the military or the judiciary, which brought down two Thaksin-allied governments.

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