Most of the protesters, known as “Red Shirts” because of their red attire, are supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist leader who was ousted in a military coup four years ago. He now spends most of his time in self-imposed exile in Dubai evading imprisonment on a corruption conviction back home. The protesters believe he or one of his allies should be allowed to run in a new vote, which political analysts say Mr. Thaksin’s supporters would almost definitely win.
A telecommunications-tycoon-turned-politician, Mr. Thaksin is wildly popular among Thailand’s rural lower classes, who make up a majority of the country’s voters and who he courted aggressively when in office. After coming to power early in the past decade, he channeled state funds to rural villages, provided easier access to credit and created low-cost health-care programs, cementing grass-roots support among people who long had felt neglected by Thailand’s urban political elite.
But as his power grew, many of the country’s royalists and business leaders grew uncomfortable with Mr. Thaksin, who they regarded as a dangerous demagogue willing to circumvent Thailand’s system of democratic checks and balances to expand his power and business interests. Corruption allegations dogged Mr. Thaksin’s administration, and in 2006, the military ousted Mr. Thaksin in a coup, ushering in a protracted period of instability in which the country has alternated between pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin governments.
The latest government, which is anti-Thaksin and was installed by parliamentary vote in 2008, has nevertheless continued many of Mr. Thaksin’s populist programs and authorized large amounts of infrastructure spending to stimulate the country’s economy. Even so, Mr. Thaksin’s supporters still view Mr. Abhisit’s government as illegitimate, in part because it continues to demonize Mr. Thaksin and block his return to the power.
Protest areas were quieter Thursday than on previous days. But opposition leaders said they would raise their protests to the “maximum level” soon, beginning with a new round of mass rallies on Friday. Late Thursday evening, raucous bands of red-shirt-wearing protesters blared horns and shouted as they moved at will through central parts of the city.
Speaking to foreign reporters On Thursday morning, government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn implied the government’s strategy was to slowly tighten the noose around the protesters while avoiding an outright confrontation. He said the government is hopeful that within a few days the numbers of protesters will dwindle as it becomes clearer to them that their activities are illegal.
The government has set up roadblocks outside Bangkok, a city of more than 12 million, to prevent more protesters from flowing into the city.
The government also said it had shut PTV, a satellite-TV station created and financed by Red Shirt sympathizers. The Red Shirts rely heavily on the station to disseminate information about the group’s plans, and losing it could limit, at least temporarily, their ability to mobilize supporters.
The government is also targeting Web sites it said was spreading false information about Mr. Abhisit and his government’s activities.
Free-speech advocates criticized the move. It was also unclear how effective it would be. Despite the importance of PTV, protesters also communicate via cellphones and an array of social networking sites, making it difficult for the government to block all their communications permanently. Red Shirt leaders said late Thursday they were already finding ways to get PTV back on the air, although it wasn’t clear how they were doing so.
“The government has no way out of this situation,” said Thanet Aphornsuvan, a historian and Southeast Asia analyst at Thammasart University in Bangkok. He said the government also owns a number of TV and radio stations.
“Why can’t the government use those mass media to give information to the people,” instead of closing opponents’ outlets, he asked.
—Wilawan Watcharasakwet, Phisanu Phromchanya and Ditas Lopez contributed to this article