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Thai "red shirts" return for symbolic rallies

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thousands of Thai anti-government protesters held simultaneous rallies on Sunday in their biggest demonstrations since a deadly military crackdown to evict them from central Bangkok four months ago.

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At least 4,000 “red shirt” protesters gathered amid tight security in Bangkok’s bustling commercial heart at a site they occupied for seven weeks, in memory of the 91 people killed during April and May clashes between troops and demonstrators.

The rallies also marked the fourth anniversary of the 2006 coup against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the movement’s patriarch and thousands more rallied at a stadium in northern Chiang Mai, a red shirt stronghold and Thaksin’s hometown.

The main rally took place with Bangkok still under a state of emergency that has allowed the arrest and detention of scores of protesters and their leaders, highlighting the resilience of the movement and the deepening political and social divide in Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy.

Thai markets boosted by a stream of foreign inflows slumped during the clashes that spiraled into the country’s worst rioting and political violence in modern history. The bourse has gained 27 percent this year, with investors still capitalizing on cheap stocks with high dividend yields.

Although the emergency decree bans political gatherings, the government allowed the rally to go ahead provided there was no violence and traffic was not blocked.

However, protesters releasing thousands of balloons and tying red ribbons on lampposts at the Ratchaprasong intersection spilled onto the roads, slowing the movement of cars and buses. Several luxury malls and department stores shuttered for weeks back in April and May chose to close early.

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The red shirts aim to keep up the pressure on the government to end what they say are unlawful political detentions and broad media censorship. They have vowed to lay wreaths every week outside prisons holding the movement’s leaders.

Sombat Boonngarm-anong, one of the new leaders who have emerged in recent months, called for the Bangkok rally to end before sundown because of security fears in the wake of a slew of mysterious grenade attacks in recent weeks.

“Our mission is now complete, it’s now time to go home safely,” he said on a loudspeaker.

A nine-week rally by the red shirts drew as many as 150,000 people at it’s peak in March, with demonstrators demanding the dissolution of parliament and immediate elections. They rejected an offer of November polls, leading to military offensives to evict them.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, whose government the protesters say is illegitimate, has said an election is not likely this year and the controversial decree is necessary to ensure peace and stability.

Few analysts expect a repeat of the violence any time soon but say the five-year crisis is far from over, despite reconciliation efforts by a military and elite-backed government that the mostly urban and rural poor protesters say are insincere and aimed at clinging on to power.

Additional reporting by Chaiwat Subprasom in Chiang Mai; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Alex Richardson