Thai PM's supporters head for huge Bangkok rally, rule out violence

Thai PM's supporters head for huge Bangkok rally, rule out violence
Pro-government Thai Red Shirt supporters practice self-defence as they attend the camp of "Democracy Protection Volunteers" in Udon Thani province, northeastern Thailand on Apri 3, 2014. In a flurry of wild punches and kicks, hundreds of Thai "Red Shirts" undergo self-defence drills as they mobilise to protect the embattled government, stoking fears the kingdom is careering towards a dangerous new phase of civil conflict.

BANGKOK - 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 Feb. 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, its at its lowest since November 2001.

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