"Red shirt" rally shows Thailand polarised as ever
* Highlights risk of unrest ahead of scheduled polls
* "Yellow shirts" plan big rally on Tuesday
By Panarat Thepgumpanat
BANGKOK, Jan 23 (Reuters) - About 30,000 anti-government "red shirts" rallied in Thailand's capital on Sunday in another show of strength that heralds a rocky run-up to an election due this year.
It was the second big rally this month by the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) and serves as a reminder of the polarisation that has plagued Southeast Asia's second-largest economy for the past five years.
The mostly rural and urban working-class "red shirts" marched from the upmarket shopping district they effectively closed for much of April and May last year to Democracy Monument in the city's old quarter.
The protests last year were halted by a military crackdown. In all, 91 people were killed, and many UDD leaders remain in detention, one of the reasons for the latest protests.
"We will stay until midnight and will meet again on Feb. 13. Our rally will get bigger and bigger until the government releases our leaders," said Jatuporn Prompan, who managed to stay out of prison because of his status as a lawmaker.
Some protesters said they were also there to show their support for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by the military in 2006 and now lives in exile to avoid a jail term handed down for corruption.
"This government's policy is no good. I want Thaksin back," said Boonsri Sudanetr, 42, from Nakhon Ratchasima in the northeast of the country, a Thaksin stronghold.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has promised an election sometime this year, perhaps in the first half, although that timeframe may not appeal to his coalition partners or his powerful backers in the military and royalist establishment.
Analysts say the regrouping of the UDD and the zero tolerance shown by the authorities threaten instability and economic damage if political tensions again spill over into violence.
"Despite (military and government) efforts to contain the situation, Thailand's political crisis will continue in 2011," risk consultancy IHS Global Insight said in a client note, adding there was a "high likelihood of further political instability, even if Abhisit manages to win the polls".
Despite those risks, foreign investors braved the turbulence in 2010 and put a net $1.9 billion into Thailand's stock market -- the second-highest inflows in the region behind Indonesia -- which helped push the baht to a 13-year high.
Just as the UDD has taken extreme measures to try to bring down Abhisit, the pro-establishment, yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) came out in force in 2006 and 2008 and helped undermine governments led or backed by Thaksin.
The PAD is planning a rally on Tuesday, its biggest since 2008, to demand a tougher stance by the government in a long-running border dispute with Cambodia. The re-emergence of the PAD on the street adds to the potentially explosive mix in the run-up to a general election.
There is no guarantee that either side would accept the outcome of the poll.
"The next election would certainly be the one where the risk of violence is greater than any before and it's likely to be one of the dirtiest, with behind-the-scenes influences that could undermine the democratic process," said Danny Richards of the Economist Intelligence Unit.
"There isn't a judiciary that's accepted by all sides as being impartial, and that undermines how the results will be accepted." (Additional reporting by Orathai Sriring; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Alan Raybould and Alex Richardson)
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