Thousands of demonstrators, some armed with golf clubs, batons and bamboo sticks, defied a court order to end their occupation of the prime minister's office compound on Thursday, vowing to remain until the country's leaders resign.
Dozens of members of the People's Alliance for Democracy clad in military fatigues wielded makeshift weapons as they stood guard around the perimeter of the compound, which the demonstrators have occupied since Tuesday. Protesters locked most of the gates and built barriers in anticipation of a possible police raid.
The group's leaders said they have a legal right to protest there.
"The PAD is not doing anything wrong," said Chamlong Srimuang, one of the leaders, referring to the initials of the alliance. "We are staging a protest because the government has made too many mistakes and has no legitimacy to run the country."
The alliance wants to force the government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej to step down, accusing it of corruption and of serving as a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and faces several corruption cases.
Late Wednesday, Bangkok Civil Court issued a ruling ordering the alliance to leave the government compound and stop blocking public streets. The Criminal Court also issued warrants for the arrest of the nine alliance leaders on charges of insurrection, conspiracy, illegal assembly and refusing orders to disperse.
Insurrection, which is the legal equivalent of treason, carries a maximum penalty of death or life imprisonment.
Thousands more form human chain
Thousands of additional supporters poured into the grounds in response, and many formed a human chain overnight around the group's top leaders to prevent them from being taken away.
Samak and police officials have repeatedly said the 1,000 police officers would not use force to evict the protesters. He and other government officials have encouraged demonstrators to leave voluntarily, even offering free bus trips back to the provinces.
"Police will use a softened stance to deal with the protesters," Police Lt. Gen. Suraphol Thuanthong. "We will give them time to leave the government house. But if they continue to defy the court order, then we have to use force to drive them out. I cannot set the precise time or deadline for this."
Samak initially said he had hoped the protesters would be out before a ceremony Saturday for Thailand's royal family. But he announced Thursday that he has proposed moving the ceremony to another site.
Ready to be arrested
Alliance leaders said the group planned to appeal the court order requiring the group to leave the government compound arguing they have a legal right to remain on the site.
But Chamlong also said he and other leaders were ready to be arrested, though they encouraged supporters to remain on the grounds.
"If we get arrested, please don't follow us to the detention center," said Chamlong said. "You must remain here and continue fighting. If you leave the government house, that means we have been defeated."
Samak, who refused to resign, said Tuesday that the protesters were trying to provoke the military.
Inside the compound, the number of protesters has risen from a few thousand to as many as 10,000, and many more appeared to be on streets outside. Bags of trash were piling up, sleeping mats covered the grounds, protesters hung laundry from buildings and toilets were in short supply.
Fears of a Thaksin comeback
After Thaksin was deposed in the bloodless coup, his party was dissolved and he was banned from public office until 2012.
But Samak led Thaksin's political allies to a December 2007 election victory, and their assumption of power triggered fears that Thaksin would make a political comeback. He remains popular with the country's rural majority.
Thaksin has sought refuge in Britain, claiming he would not get a fair trial in Thailand.