Image: Protest march in Bangkok
Rungroj Yongrit  /  EPA
Supporters of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra march in Bangkok on Friday.
updated 3/11/2010 6:23:29 PM ET 2010-03-11T23:23:29

The Thai capital braced for possible violence as anti-government demonstrators prepared to launch Friday what they hope will be one of the country's biggest protests ever, aiming to force Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to call new elections.

Leaders of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, called the Red Shirts because of their hallmark garb, have vowed to keep their "Million-man march" protest nonviolent. Demonstrators will start meeting around the country Friday, and converge in the Thai capital Bangkok on Sunday.

The group's last major protest in Bangkok in April last year deteriorated into rioting that saw two people killed, more than 120 people injured and buses burned on major thoroughfares. The army was called in to quash the unrest.

The Red Shirts include followers of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and other people who oppose the 2006 military coup that toppled him. They believe Abhisit came to power illegitimately with the connivance of the military and other parts of the traditional Thai ruling class, who were fearful of Thaksin's popularity while in office in 2001-2006.

Several schools planned to close Friday and again next week if circumstances warrant. Some two dozen foreign embassies have issued travel advisories, including the United States which urged Americans to stay away from the protests where "violence cannot be ruled out."

Some allies of the Red Shirts have openly boasted of armed retribution if the protests are suppressed. The government has advised against panic, while warning of possible sabotage by the Red Shirts. Viral e-mails have advised readers to stock up on food and fuel.

Government supporters claim the Red Shirts will dress up as police and soldiers to shoot demonstrators in order to create martyrs; Red Shirt leaders says provocateurs pretending to be protesters will incite violence to discredit their movement.

'Civilian defense volunteers'
More than 30,000 security officials will be deployed around Bangkok and 46,000 "civilian defense volunteers" are on standby for the rallies, government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said. Red Shirt leaders say they hope up to 600,000 protesters will turn out.

On Tuesday, the government invoked its Internal Security Act to give the military special powers to restore order if necessary.

Jaran Ditthapichai, a Red Shirt leader, told foreign journalists last week that the group's strategy was to force Abhisit to either suppress the rally or agree to dissolve parliament. But he acknowledged that it might not happen that way.

"Frankly speaking, I do not know. No one knows how to win," he said. "It is not easy because we use peaceful means."

Preparing for protest
The government, while saying it will honor the right to gather for peaceful protest, has set up roadblocks at all main access points to the capital, and has been stopping and searching cars.

Sean Boonpracong, a spokesman for the Red Shirts, said Thursday that confrontations at one of these checkpoints could set off clashes between the protesters and the army.

"The government and the army is going to do whatever they can to stop us," said Weng Tojirakarn, another Red Shirt leader, adding that the authorities were expected to also try to block protesters from coming into Bangkok by boat.

He said the group would try to avoid confrontation, "But you never know; clashes could happen anytime in the next few days."

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