BANGKOK, Thailand - As many as 100,000 people demonstrated peacefully against Thailand's government at a party-like rally Sunday, but the capital was being kept on edge by their threat to continue protesting until Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva calls new elections.
Loud pop music and rural delicacies such as spicy papaya salad competed with fiery rhetoric for the attention of the crowd, many of whom had come from provinces in the countryside. The festive tone was aided by hundreds of new arrivals disembarking from boats festooned with red banners on the Chao Phraya River.
The so-called Red Shirts - comprising followers of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and their allies - rallied along a boulevard that is a traditional venue for political protests.
The protesters, formally grouped as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, have been flexible in their tactics and deadlines, but are demanding Abhisit dissolve Parliament and call new elections, which they believe will restore their political allies to power.
They believe Abhisit took office illegitimately with the connivance of the military and other parts of the traditional ruling class who were alarmed by Thaksin's popularity, particularly among the poor. Thaksin, who became prime minister in 2001 and whose party easily won two elections, was ousted by a 2006 military coup for alleged corruption and abuse of power.
The Red Shirts set a deadline of noon Monday for Abhisit to heed their call, or face disruptive street protests. They said they would go Monday morning to an infantry base on Bangkok's outskirts to confront Abhisit, who has taken the precaution of sheltering there.
Abhisit indicated Sunday that for now, he had no plans to dissolve Parliament.
Thaksin spoke to the rally by video link Sunday night, urging the crowd to continue their struggle peacefully, and emphasizing that he considered the so-called ammart, or elite, the enemy. Thaksin himself is a billionaire businessman who fled Thailand in 2008 ahead of being convicted for a conflict of interest violation and sentenced to two years in jail.
"The people who caused the problems in the country these days are the ruling elites," declared Thaksin, speaking from an undisclosed location outside of Thailand. "To solve problems related to democracy, equality and justice - the ruling elites won't be able to do that because they don't have the conscience. The people will have to do it."
He accused his opponents of keeping Thailand in a state of underdevelopment, and suggested that if he returned to power, he would redistribute wealth, stop flooding in Bangkok, and keep Thailand economically competitive with its neighbours.
Other speakers employed crude personal invective, especially against 89-year-old Prem Tinsulanonda, a former prime minister who is the top adviser to King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The demonstrators blame Prem for orchestrating the 2006 military coup that toppled Thaksin.
The protest had been billed as a "million man march," though organizers had said they hoped for a turnout of 400,000-600,000. Protest leader Natthawut Saikua, said he believed more than a half million people turned up, while estimates from the police and other government agencies ranged from 50,000-150,000. Associated Press reporters said it was one of the biggest turnouts in the past five years of frequent protests, which would put it over the 100,000 mark.
There had been widespread worries ahead of the protest about possible violence, and a force of 50,000 soldiers, police and other security personnel was mobilized in the capital area. The Red Shirts' last major protest in Bangkok last April deteriorated into rioting that left two people dead, more than 120 people injured and buses burned on major thoroughfares before the army quashed the unrest.
"We are being vigilant. We are still concerned about the third hand that might instigate troubles. But the Red Shirts are adamant about keeping their rally peaceful, and so far they have been peaceful. Everything has been done step by step. Every side is cautious," government spokesman Panithan Wattanayakorn said Sunday night.
Thailand has been in constant political turmoil since early 2006, when anti-Thaksin demonstrations began. In 2008, when Thaksin's political allies came back to power for a year, his opponents occupied the prime minister's office compound for three months and seized Bangkok's two airports for a week.
Associated Press writer Grant Peck and photographer David Longstreath contributed to this report.