World

Thai protesters' caravan wends through capital

BANGKOK (AP) — A crimson tide of protesters snaked its way through the Thai capital Saturday, with thousands of cars, trucks and motorbikes tangling up traffic as demonstrators sought to drum up support for ousting a government they call illegitimate.

The festive caravan of as many as 100,000 "Red Shirt" protesters is to be followed up Sunday with the group making a giant painting from their own blood, the latest shock tactic in their weeklong campaign to force Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve Parliament and call new elections.

The day's good mood was marred by two small explosions Saturday night that appeared linked to the political battle. At least one person was reported wounded by what police said was a grenade tossed near the Defense Ministry. Damage was minor at the site and at the new office of the country's National Anti-Corruption Commission.

The raucous procession, which wound its way over 40 miles (70 kilometers), was met with curious and often sympathetic crowds, revealing a level of support in the capital that the conventional wisdom of the Thai press had underestimated.

"I haven't seen any opposition from Bangkok people. People were thankful. They came to cheer us from all walks of life," said Kotchawan Pim-ngern, 40, a flower seller, on a pickup truck. "They all want democracy back."

Not everyone was pleased. Some hecklers held signs saying the demonstrators, many of whom came from rural areas, were not welcome. Thai television stations said a bottle was tossed at one protest leader as he drove by.

The caravan stretched at times at least six miles (10 kilometers) along Bangkok's streets, and Vichai Sangparpai, a commander in the Metropolitan Police, estimated the number of participants at 100,000, though the department later gave a figure of 65,000 people traveling on 10,000 motorcycles and 7,000 cars and trucks.

"Each side, each political party has a lot of support," Abhisit said Saturday. "The issue is not about showing numbers or strength in some kind of demonstration. It's about how we can solve the differences to the best interests of the country."

The protesters consist of supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup for alleged corruption, and pro-democracy activists who opposed the army takeover.

Thaksin's allies won power in a December 2007 election but were forced out by court rulings. Abhisit's Democrat Party then rallied the support of enough lawmakers to form a coalition government in December 2008.

Thakin's backers believe that Abhisit came to power illegitimately with the connivance of the military, courts and other parts of the traditional ruling class and that only new elections can restore integrity to Thai democracy.

Government officials had warned of possible violence, including the prospect of sabotage and grenade attacks. But the protesters have been disciplined to the point of stopping for traffic lights as they wend their way through town.

Protest leaders during the week disavowed colleagues who threatened violence. No one took responsibility for Saturday night's blasts, which both government and the protesters were likely to regard as a provocation.

Abhisit was also criticized for sleeping and working from an army base for the past week to avoid the demonstrators.

The protesters — formally known as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship — may have regained some credibility with Saturday's turnout.

Before the protest began a week ago, they had billed it as a "million-man march," but attracted numbers just cresting over 100,000 by most estimates. The numbers fell by as much as half during the work week.

They also came in for criticism for their "blood sacrifice" tactics, which saw thousands of Red Shirts donate blood to spill at the gates of Abhisit's office, the headquarters of his ruling party and his private residence.

Protest leaders say they have 15 jugs of blood left and plan to use it to create a massive work of art on Sunday.

"Artists and Red Shirts will be invited to partake in a blood painting," said a protest leader, Jatuporn Prompan. They plan to unfurl a giant white cloth on which supporters will be invited to paint pictures, scrawl poems and express political statements.

"The theme of this artwork will be the history of the people's fight for democracy," Jatuporn said.

Large crowds cheered Saturday's protest caravan from the sidewalks as it passed with red flags and ribbons fluttering and car horns honking. Some motorcyclists plastered their license plates with stickers reading "The Red Shirts love Bangkok people."

Protest leaders have been portraying the weeklong demonstrations as a struggle between Thailand's impoverished, mainly rural masses and a Bangkok-based elite insensitive to their plight. The Red Shirts' opponents call them puppets for Thaksin's ambitions to regain power.

"The Red Shirt movement has gone beyond a fight for Thaksin. It began that way, but thanks to good campaigning and media promotion, more people now want to see a change in society," said Somjai Phagaphasvivat, an associate professor of political science at Bangkok's Thammasat University.

"There is no solution or exit to this conflict, not until either the Red Shirts or the government has an upper hand," he said. "Right now each side is waiting for the other to make a move, but all they can do right now is to prevent the situation from going out of control."