BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thousands of demonstrators prepared to rally on Friday in support of Thailand’s embattled government, a day after at least one person was killed and scores wounded in grenade attacks that shook Bangkok’s business district.
A group calling itself “multi-colors” said more than 50,000 people would rally in the city’s historic heart to demand rival “red shirt” demonstrators end a six-week protest they say is hurting the people and holding the economy hostage.
Thailand has had color-coded protests for years -- mainly by the pro-government “yellow shirts,” and the “red shirts” who are sympathetic to ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
They wear any color to the their protests -- hence, the name. But they are virulently opposed to the red shirts, who they accuse of causing violence and damaging the local economy. They have held small protests demanding that red shirts encamped in their city go home.
Analysts say their rally could further inflame tensions in the capital. It is technically illegal under Bangkok’s state of emergency, but the government is allowing it, despite fears they might provoke rival demonstrators.
Many of those injured in Thursday’s grenade attacks were “multi-colors” who had taunted red shirts camped out just 50 meters (165 ft) away from them in the ebusiness district. The group is generally viewed as the “yellow shirts” under a different brand.
The People’s Alliance for Democracy represents royalists, businessmen, and the urban middle class, who are opposed to Thaksin and his populist movement. They took to the streets in 2005 to oust the twice-elected Thaksin, alleging massive corruption and disloyalty to King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Yellow is the color associated with the 82-year-old monarch.
The well-funded “yellow shirt” protests led to a 2006 bloodless coup. When a pro-Thaksin party was elected in army-organized polls, they blockaded government buildings for 193 days in 2008 and helped bring down two prime ministers.
Their biggest victory came when they took over Bangkok’s airports for eight days in late 2008, a siege that ended with a judicial dissolution of the pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party, and paved the way for Abhisit to take power. They have stayed on the sidelines since then. They plan to meet on Monday to discuss holding their “biggest ever” rally.
They say they represent the rural poor and urban working class who resent interference in politics by powerful unelected elites -- the judiciary, big business and top military generals.
The “red shirts” say Abhisit’s government came to power in an army-brokered deal in parliament in December 2008 and, therefore, is illegitimate. Their protests show no signs of waning.
Some 15,000 of them have been camping out for weeks in central Bangkok in a self-contained, makeshift village surrounded by posh malls and luxury hotels. They have barricaded the entrances to the encampment with truck tires, paving stones and bamboo poles.
Despite being dismissed as rabble-rousers financed by the wealthy Thaksin, their protests have been largely peaceful and have drawn crowds of up to 150,000 people, at first occupying Bangkok’s historic heart before moving to the shopping district.
In the past year, they have shut down a summit of Asian leaders, closed off the government’s headquarters and faced off twice with the military in violent clashes.
Having staged 18 coups or attempted power grabs in 77 years, the military is never far removed from politics, and most analysts believe it has a big role in the current government.
However, military insiders and security analysts say the army is split along similar red-yellow faultlines as society, and the current round of protests has highlighted these divisions.
Top commanders are mostly royalists with a “yellow” leaning. But many in the rank-and-file hail from impoverished parts of Thailand, and are believed to sympathize with the “red shirts.” They have been dubbed “watermelons” -- green on the outside, with a red core. Some off-duty soldiers have even attended rallies.
Pro-Thaksin generals were transferred to inactive posts or low-level command positions when the former telecoms tycoon was toppled. Dozens have retired and joined the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai party, but still retain some influence in the military.
Military sources say elements of the military have stood with the protesters, and even faced off against fellow soldiers, in a bid to create anarchy and bring Thaksin -- and his favorite generals -- back to power.
WHO DO THE “TOMATOES” SIDE WITH?
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s reliance on the military for security operations probably stems from distrust and perceived lack of cooperation from the police.
Riot police have put up little resistance during “red shirt” rallies, and have been half-hearted at stopping busloads of protesters from coming into the capital. Many senior commanders are known to be linked to Thaksin, a former policeman himself. Thais often call them “tomatoes” -- red throughout.
The police were relieved of responsibility to arrest “red shirt” leaders last week after a bungled raid at a hotel where some were staying. The embarrassing episode ended when some leaders simply walked away when protesters overwhelmed police commandos. One scaled down from his hotel room on an electrical cable, taking with him two police generals as hostage.
Mysterious, black-clad gunmen appeared among protesters in the April 10 clashes that killed 25 and injured more than 800. The government has branded them “terrorists.”
Red shirts freely acknowledge that elements in the army are protecting them. Some generals sympathetic to Thaksin have previously claimed they have set up a “people’s army” but deny any involvement in the April 10 clashes, in which a former bodyguard of the Queen was killed in what appeared to be an assassination.
Editing by Bill Tarrant