Huge marches in Bangkok today

BANGKOK - Bangkok faces paralysis today as huge crowds of anti-government protesters set out on symbolic marches across the capital in a move that protest leaders are calling an attempt to overthrow the so-called "Thaksin Shinawatra regime".

The enormous crowd that packed Democracy Monument and nearby areas yesterday looks set to enable the Democrat Party and its allies, which are leading the joint protests, to come up with various measures today - starting at 8.30am - to put pressure on the Pheu Thai-led coalition government. Their aim is initially to shut down, and eventually end, the so-called Thaksin regime.

The protesters yesterday crowded on to inner Rajdamnoen Avenue, spilling over into adjacent areas and blocking major roads, including Lan Luang Road, the Nang Lerng area and Khok Wua Intersection. Even Sanam Luang and nearby Pin Klao Bridge saw large numbers of protesters.

Two key groups of anti-government protesters are expected to move across the capital today. One group will march to block access to Government House and Parliament, while the other will pressure government agencies, a high-ranking protest source said yesterday.

The Students and People's Network for Thailand's Reform (STR) and the People's Army to Overthrow the Thaksin Regime - known for their hardline stances - will lead protesters to converge at eight key locations in central areas. At the same time, former Democrat MP Suthep Thaugsuban will lead a second group of marchers to 12 other locations - including the government civil-service complex on Chaeng Watthana Road - to call on officials to engage in acts of civil disobedience.

The Suthep-led march will no doubt cause temporary traffic congestion today. However, the blockade of Government House and Parliament are likely to have longer-lasting effects, as the Democrat-led protesters will attempt to prevent the no-confidence debate, which begins tomorrow, the source said.

Political deadlock is expected to hit the Yingluck government if the Parliament is blockaded; such an action would render the announcement of a last-resort House dissolution impossible. The Constitution bars a government from dissolving the House once a no-confidence motion has been accepted, pending a debate.

This possibility yesterday prompted a government operations centre, headed by Labour Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung, to urgently seek an alternative venue for tomorrow's censure debate.

The centre has recommended protection of strategic locations, at the highest level, to deter any attempts to blockade them, but it is doubtful whether police would be able to stop crowds, which outnumber them, from doing so. The strategic sites include Government House and both airports. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra reportedly told police that she wanted to hold the Cabinet meeting at Government House, as no alternative locations had been found.

Estimates of the number of protesters yesterday varied, with security sources citing a figure of around 100,000 and a spokesman for the Democracy Monument rally putting the number at 440,000 in the late afternoon with more expected in the evening.

Protesters who travelled to Bangkok from the provinces yesterday were camped out last night along Rajdamnoen Avenue under large tents. The crowds, which have also spilled over onto Pin Klao Bridge, are also blocking many connecting roads on both the Bangkok and Thon Buri sides of the river, causing severe gridlock.

The pro-Thaksin red-shirts gathered yesterday at Rajamangala Stadium in the Hua Mak area - a considerable distance from the anti-government protests - with the rally scheduled to start at 6pm. As of 8.30pm, red-shirt leaders claimed 60,000 people had converged there.

Red-shirt leader Yoswarit Chooklom, aka Jeng Dokjik, said protesters were prepared to stay for at least five days.

However, they said the situation would be evaluated on a daily basis - citing concerns about government stability as the reason.

In addition to Bangkok residents, the red-shirt movement is made up of a number of factions from the provinces, including Nong Khai, Udon Thani, Chon Buri, Rayong and Nakhon Ratchasima.

War rooms set up at the Supreme Command are monitoring the protests on Rajdamnoen Avenue around the clock, a military source said.

The source said military leaders feared that the protests would escalate out of control because the number of people gathered was so large. Suthep might be unable to control the situation, the source, said, citing a concern reportedly expressed by Yingluck.