Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva rejected calls for his resignation as tens of thousands of protesters marched Wednesday in Bangkok, posing the biggest challenge to his government amid fears of violence.
All dressed in red, the massive crowd marched through Bangkok's historic northern district, overtaking main boulevards and waving pictures of their leader-in-exile, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 coup after six years as prime minister.
The protesters say Abhisit — who was appointed by Parliament in December — took power illegitimately and should step aside so Parliament can be dissolved ahead of fresh elections.
Protesters headed to the home of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's top adviser, Prem Tinsulanonda, whom they accuse of masterminding the coup. They are also demanding Prem's resignation and have accused the country's elite — the military, judiciary and Prem's inner circle — of interfering in politics.
"Brothers and sisters, come out. If you love democracy, come out! If you want an end to elite rule, come out!" protest leaders aboard trucks shouted through megaphones. "Abhisit, get out! Prem, get out!"
More than 4,000 police were deployed in the area, where the all-day protest was planned, with the army on standby and authorities urging the general public to avoid the area. Prem's house was guarded by riot police and barricades.
Wednesday's rally comes after a two-week sit-in outside Abhisit's office but marked the largest turnout yet.
"Abhisit rejected the protesters demands and said he planned to carry on with his day as usual.
"The government will not dissolve Parliament," Abhisit told reporters after launching an anti-drunk driving campaign ahead of the Thai New Year next week. "We will only do so if it is an appropriate solution. We will not respond to threats of violence."
Police expect at least 80,000 people to gather, said Bangkok Police Chief Lt. Gen. Worapong Chiewpreecha. Police did not have an early crowd count, saying there were tens of thousands after the march started.
Abhisit said there would be no order to disperse the crowd if they remained orderly.
"If it becomes a riot, the government will have to do something," Abhisit said in an interview with Channel 3 television.
"I can assure you there will no violence starting from the government's side," Abhisit said. "There are some people who want chaos, but the government will do everything to restrain them."
Prem has denied the accusations that he orchestrated the coup, but the rare public criticism of a king's privy councilor broke a taboo in Thailand, where members of the monarchy and their aides are highly revered. Prem had been indirectly accused of orchestrating the coup before; the last rally outside his home in July 2007 turned into a riot in which more than 200 people were injured.
On the eve of the rally, a car carrying Abhisit was attacked by protesters, but he escaped unharmed. The Tuesday attack occurred as Abhisit left a Cabinet meeting in the coastal resort of Pattaya, about 90 miles south of Bangkok, where Asian leaders will gather Friday for a summit.
Thaksin, who was ousted amid accusations of corruption and abuse of power, has been addressing the protests via video link from exile. He fled the country last year before a court convicted him of abuse of power and sentenced him to two years in prison.
"This will be a historic day!" Thaksin told his supporters Tuesday evening, his image on a giant screen outside Government House. "I want to urge my Thai brothers and sisters who love freedom and justice ... to gather in large numbers and show your power."
Most of Thaksin's supporters are from the country's poor rural majority, who benefited from his populist policies. They are known as "the red shirts," for their favored attire.
The protests are the latest episode in Thailand's long-running political turmoil, a tug-of-war between Thaksin's supporters and opponents.
Last year was dominated by protests from Thaksin's opponents, who wear yellow shirts. They occupied the Government House for three months and shutdown Bangkok's two airports for a week. Their protests ended in December after courts removed two pro-Thaksin prime ministers from office, paving the way for Abhisit to take power in Parliament in December.
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