BANGKOK - Thousands of Thai pro-government "Red Shirts" massed Saturday in a show of support for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, warning that they would resist attempts to oust her through the courts.
More than 3,000 police and troops have been mobilised for the rally on the western outskirts of Bangkok, following months of political violence in which 24 people were killed and hundreds wounded.
Thailand has been rocked by years of sometimes bloody street protests by supporters and opponents of fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's elder brother.
Supporters of the movement arrived in buses and trucks for what Red Shirt leaders hoped will be their biggest show of strength in the months-long crisis.
"I want to see justice. I want the country to have democracy," said Keatisak Thaweerit, 46, who hails from northeast Thailand.
"We are here to use the voices of the majority of the people in the country." The authorities expected up to 200,000 Red Shirts to join the two-day rally, Paradorn Pattanatabut, a security adviser to the premier, told AFP.
But about two hours after the official start, the turnout was still only several thousands of people, according to an AFP reporter at the site.
Paradorn said the authorities did not expect any clashes with rival anti-government protesters who have been holding daily rallies at a park in the city centre, far from the site of the Red Shirt rallies.
"What we are concerned by is third parties," he said, alluding to unidentified assailants who have launched a series of gun and grenade attacks around the capital in recent months, often targeting opposition protesters.
A country divided
The rival rallies have highlighted the political fault lines that have riven Thai society since a military coup toppled Thaksin in 2006.
Thaksin, a telecoms tycoon-turned-politician, who clashed with Thailand's royalist establishment, has traditionally enjoyed strong support in the northern half of the kingdom.
The ousted premier, who fled overseas in 2008 to avoid jail for a corruption conviction, is hated by many Thais in Bangkok and the south who accuse him of corruption and nepotism.
The opposition says it wants to install an unelected "neutral" leader to oversee vaguely defined reforms aimed at clamping down on corruption and reining in the Shinawatra family's political dominance.
Drawn mostly from the poor but populous north and northeast, the Red Shirts say they will not accept the removal of another democratically elected government.
"If they are stubborn and go ahead to appoint a neutral prime minister or stage a coup, the Red Shirts will fiercely oppose it," the movement's chairman, Jatuporn Prompan, told reporters at the rally site.
Yingluck faces neglect of duty charges linked to a loss-making rice subsidy scheme and allegations of abuse of power over the transfer of a top security official.
Her supporters view the moves as an attempted power grab.
Hundreds of Red Shirts underwent self-defence training earlier this week to act as security guards for the rally, which is expected to be the first of a series of major protests to defend the government.
The Constitutional Court last month annulled a February general election disrupted by demonstrators, leaving Thailand in a legislative stalemate with only a caretaker government.
Thaksin-allied parties won every previous election for more than a decade. The Election Commission is due to hold talks with political parties on April 22 about holding new polls.