BANGKOK Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's red-shirted supporters said on Wednesday they were ready to defend her government in the streets from royalist-backed protesters seeking to install unelected leaders.
The warning by Thailand's mostly working poor "red shirts" highlights the risks of a crisis fuelled by middle-class anger at the electoral and legislative power of the Shinawatra family, revered as populist heroes in the vote-rich north and northeast.
The turmoil has veered from violent protests in which five people were killed and more than 300 wounded to occupations of government buildings and, in recent days, bewildering statements by Suthep Thaugsuban, a firebrand politician who quit the mainstream opposition to lead the protesters.
He has told police to arrest Yingluck for treason, ordered civil servants to report to him, not the government and called for citizen "peacekeeping forces" to take over from police.
On Wednesday, he mocked Yingluck for her earlier comment that she could not resign because she needed to run the country as caretaker until an election slated for February 2.
"If a plane crashed with the whole cabinet in it and they all died, Thailand would still go on," Suthep said, describing himself as an "ambassador of the people" before a crowd of 2,500, one of the smallest since his campaign started.
He said he had requested a meeting with the police and military chiefs by Thursday evening, during which he would ask them to choose a side in the conflict. Their comments, he said, would help shape his strategy to overthrow Yingluck.
It's unclear if they will meet. Missed deadlines have become the norm for a publicity-thirsty protest movement that has openly courted anarchy on Bangkok streets in hopes of inducing a military coup or judicial intervention to bring down Yingluck.
Threatened national strikes have not materialized. Police have ignored calls to withdraw. Deadlines for toppling the government have passed with Yingluck shaken but still in power.
Demonstrations expanded on Monday when 160,000 people rallied in Bangkok, causing Yingluck to dissolve parliament and call an election for February 2. That vote may be meaningless if the Democrat Party, which backs the protests, decides to boycott it.
Suthep, a silver-haired former deputy prime minister in Democrat-led government that Yingluck's ruling party beat by a landslide in 2011, has pressed forward with a plan to install an unelected "people's council" made up of appointed "good people".
If that happens, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), as the red shirts are known, would rally to Yingluck's side, said Jatuporn Promphan, one of its leaders.
"It is the UDD's job to bring together en masse the red shirts and those who love democracy and don't agree with Suthep's methods. There will be many more people than Suthep managed to gather," he told Reuters in an interview.
Suthep, who a few weeks ago resigned the parliamentary seat he had held for 34 years, derives support from a small but powerful minority: the royalist elite in Bangkok and the opposition Democrat Party, the country's oldest, which has failed to win an election since 1992.
In 2010, Suthep authorized a security crackdown that left downtown Bangkok burning and killed scores of red shirts. Their movement says it still supports Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother, who was ousted as prime minister in a 2006 coup.
Akanat Promphan, Suthep's step-son and anti-government protest spokesman, said if Yingluck resigned, the Senate would name a "neutral prime minister" and the "People's Council" would be the legislative body and help set up a "parallel government".
The impasse could drag on for weeks. Suthep's group could even seize power if the politically powerful military or the judiciary get involved, a familiar pattern in Thailand.
Although Thaksin or his allies have won every election of the past decade, the politicized courts have often intervened, annulling an 2006 election won by Thaksin on a technicality and later dissolving his Thai Rak Thai Party for electoral fraud.
His party's next incarnation, the People's Power Party, suffered the same fate. Nearly 150 executives of both parties were banned for five years.
Suthep says his People's Council would eradicate the influence of Thaksin, a billionaire who remains a powerful force in Yingluck's government and sometimes convenes cabinet meetings by webcam from Dubai, where he lives in self-exile to avoid jail for abuse of power, a ruling he says was politically motivated.
Late on Tuesday, Suthep called for protesters to target Yingluck's entire family.
"When Suthep speaks he should bear in mind that there are millions of Thais who love Thaksin and love the Shinawatra family," red shirt leader Thida Thawornseth told Reuters.
"Where does Suthep come off thinking he can speak on behalf of all Thais?" she asked. "Suthep has said Yingluck cannot go anywhere in Thailand without being insulted. What about him? He is the one who should be worried."
Such comments suggest the protests could lead to a wider conflict if Yingluck's elected government is forcibly removed.
After courts brought down two Thaksin-allied prime ministers in late 2008 and the Democrats came to power through a parliamentary vote, believed to be orchestrated by the military, the red shirts paralyzed Bangkok in April-May 2010.
The red shirts cut short a rally at a Bangkok stadium on December 1 after fatal clashes outside and postponed a December 10 demonstration in Ayutthaya, north of Bangkok.
Asked what would bring them out on to the street, Jatuporn said: "When chaos ensues or when Suthep's side uses violent methods to gain power."
(Additional reporting by Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat and Pairat Temphairojana; Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Martin Petty and Alistair Lyon)