Thailand's Red Shirts gather at site of May violence to mark anniversary of 2006 military coup

BANGKOK (AP) — Thousands of anti-government "Red Shirt" protesters defied a state of emergency in Thailand's capital to stage their first major demonstration since their street protests were ended by a deadly military crackdown in May.

The activities Sunday marked the fourth anniversary of a 2006 military coup that toppled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The Red Shirts include many Thaksin supporters as well as activists opposed to the military's interference in politics.

Thousands of people gathered Sunday at Bangkok's Rajprasong intersection, a glitzy shopping district that was occupied by the group from April to May. The crowd, exuberant but peaceful, spilled into the street and snarled traffic, while hundreds of police stood by in case of trouble.

"This showed that a large number of Red Shirt people, despite the emergency decree being in effect, are still passionate and want to express their feelings," said Sombat Boonngamanong, a Red Shirt organizer.

The Red Shirt protests earlier this year, which demanded that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva call early elections, deteriorated into violence that turned many parts of Bangkok into a virtual war zone. About 90 people were killed, mostly demonstrators.

When troops moved in with live ammunition to clear the demonstrators on May 19 — exactly four months ago — hardcore protesters set fire to almost three dozen buildings around Bangkok, including the country's biggest luxury shopping mall and the stock exchange. Most top Red Shirt leaders were detained.

Bangkok remains under a state of emergency imposed in April that gives the military broad powers, and soldiers have been deployed at key locations over the past two weeks as the government warned of possible violence around the coup anniversary.

Sunday's protesters shouted "People died here" and "Abhisit, get out" before the demonstration culminated in the lighting of candles and release of balloons to honor those who died in the earlier protests.

Among those taking part was Boonchuai Rumpai, 58, a housewife from Ayutthaya who participated in the previous demonstrations.

"I want democracy back. I want new elections," she said. But one thing that has changed, she said, is "I don't want to see any more coffins."

"We have learned our lessons and we must bring ourselves out of this shadow," said Sombat, referring to the violence that marred the earlier protests.

Thaksin was ousted by the Sept. 19, 2006, coup after being accused of corruption and disrespect to Thailand's constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The army acted after a series of protests and court rulings nearly paralyzed Thaksin's ability to govern but the coup has sharply polarized society.

Many of Thaksin's supporters come from the rural poor who benefited from his social welfare policies and remain bitter over his ouster through undemocratic means.

Many of his opponents, including members of the urban middle class and elite, see him as a threat to democracy and view his populist brand of politics as a danger to their own privileges.

In 2008, Thaksin opponents seized the prime minister's offices for three months and occupied Bangkok's two airports for a week to try to force a pro-Thaksin government out of office.

The Red Shirts allege that military and parliamentary maneuvering unfairly brought Abhisit to power in December 2008.

Thaksin is living in exile abroad after fleeing in 2008 ahead of a corruption conviction. He supports the Red Shirts but denies accusations that he instigated the violence.

A smaller crowd turned out Sunday at Bangkok's Democracy Monument, a traditional gathering point for demonstrations which was also the site of a clash between the Red Shirts and soldiers in April.

Another demonstration was held in the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thaksin's hometown and one of his political strongholds.