BANGKOK (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of Thai government supporters are expected to descend on Bangkok this weekend in a symbolic show of force after months of sometimes violent protests aimed at bringing down Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The speed at which political opponents are bringing court cases against Yingluck appears to have prompted her supporters into action, raising fears of a confrontation between the two sides.
Tens of thousands of Yingluck’s “red shirt” supporters rallied at a Bangkok stadium in November to counter growing anti-government sentiment but abruptly disbanded the following month after violent clashes with anti-government protesters left five people dead and scores wounded.
Authorities said they were not expecting violence this time.
“Anti-government protesters will be in inner city Bangkok whereas the red shirts will outside,” Paradorn Pattanathabutr, a security adviser to the prime minister, told Reuters.
“A confrontation looks unlikely but we’re on the lookout for provocateurs.”
Red shirt leaders said they were not looking for a fight.
“Our rally will show, loud and clear, that Thailand will only accept a democratically elected prime minister and nothing else,” Nattawut Saikua, a red shirt leader, told Reuters.
“We won’t use force. We’re not after a confrontation.”
Red shirt leaders expect up to 500,000 to turn up Saturday while police say around 350,000 will gather on Saturday and Sunday, with many expected to travel overnight on Friday by bus and train from provinces around the country, especially from Yingluck’s support base in the north and northeast.
Anti-government protesters are based in Bangkok’s central Lumpini Park on the edge of the financial district.
Five months of anti-government protests have halted traffic, spooked tourists to the “Land of Smiles” and hit business hard. Demonstrators have occupied state offices, held noisy street rallies and disrupted a February 2 general election which was nullified by a court in March.
They want broad political reforms, including the setting up of a “people’s council” of notable worthies, before a new general election is held.
Weeks of protests have taken a toll on Thailand’s economy. Figures show consumer confidence dropped to 68.8 in March from 69.9 in February. The index, which has fallen 12 straight months, it’s at its lowest since November 2001.
The noose appears to be slowly closing in on Yingluck who faces a series of legal challenges including a case accepted by the Constitutional Court on Wednesday lodged by 27 senators who say Yingluck abused power when she transferred the national security chief in 2011.
Yingluck has been given 15 days to defend herself before the court. If found guilty, she faces removal from office.
She also faces charges of dereliction of duty brought against her by the National Anti-Corruption Commission. Should the commission forward the case to the Senate of possible impeachment, Yingluck would be suspended from official duties.
Twenty-four people have been killed in politically related violence since late November.
The protests, led by firebrand Suthep Thaugsuban, were triggered by Yingluck’s moves last year to grant amnesty to her brother, the self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted by the military in 2006.
Protesters accuse billionaire Thaksin of rampant graft and want to remove the influence of family, promising ill-defined political reforms.
The crisis is the latest episode in an eight-year conflict that generally pits Bangkok’s middle class and royalist establishment against poorer, mainly rural supporters of Thaksin and his sister.
The violence is the worst since 2010 when Suthep, at the time a deputy prime minister, sent in troops to end mass protests by the red shirts.
Suthep faces murder charges related to his role in that crackdown when more than 90 people were killed, and for insurrection in leading the latest protests.
Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Editing by Nick Macfie