BANGKOK (AP) — Thousands of red-shirted protesters surging into the Thai capital from impoverished rural areas Saturday gave the government an ultimatum to "return power to the people" or face mass marches in key locations.
Traffic was light, businesses were shuttered and social events canceled in Bangkok as many feared the four-day demonstrations that begin Sunday would repeat past violence. But protesters stressed they would use only peaceful means in their quest for new elections.
"If the prime minister refuses to dissolve Parliament on Sunday, we will declare new measures. We are planning to march to key spots belonging to those in power," a protest leader, Jatuporn Prompan, said.
"We will ask (the prime minister) to return power to the people," he said.
Jatuporn said he expected a million people to gather by noon Sunday. By nightfall Saturday, it did not appear that such a number could be mustered.
The protesters arriving in the sprawling capital throughout the day had traveled in trucks, buses and motorcycles from the Thai countryside.
In Wang Noi, to the north of the city, a line of protesters in vehicles stretched about four miles (seven kilometers) along a highway as security personnel slowly searched the arrivals. Traffic jams on the highway began as far as 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the city.
There were no reports of violence Saturday, and Jatuporn even praised authorities for facilitating the protesters' easy entry into the capital.
Government spokesman Panithan Wattanayakorn said protesters were being provided with free bus rides from provincial areas to Bangkok.
A force of 50,000 soldiers, police and other security personnel was mobilized in the capital area.
The march is regarded by some as the last chance for ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to return to Thailand.
The "Red Shirt" protesters, formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, are made up of followers of Thaksin, along with other people who oppose the 2006 military coup that toppled him.
Forcing the government out of power, Thaksin loyalists say, could pave the way for his pardon and return.
Thaksin, who resides in Dubai, faces a two-year prison term for abuse of power. But he remains especially popular among the rural and urban people who are thankful for the cheap medical care, low interest loans and other measures his government enacted to alleviate poverty.
The demonstrators want Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to call new elections, which they believe will allow their political allies to regain power. They believe Abhisit came to power illegitimately with the connivance of the military and other parts of the traditional Thai ruling class who were jealous and fearful of Thaksin's popularity while in office in 2001-2006.
Thailand has been in constant political turmoil since early 2006, when demonstrations accusing Thaksin of corruption and abuse of power 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.
Recent polls in Bangkok indicate a large segment of the population, irrespective of their political beliefs, is fed up with the protests, which have battered the economy, including the lucrative tourism industry.
"I'm so sick of the protests. It doesn't matter who becomes prime minister. The economy is not good and neither is anything else. Every time a protest plan is announced, tourists disappear," said Yai Oat-ngam, a restaurant owner near an area popular with foreign backpackers.
The Red Shirts have vowed to keep their protest nonviolent. The group's last major protest in Bangkok in April deteriorated into rioting that left two people dead, more than 120 people injured and buses burned on major thoroughfares. The army was called in to quash the unrest.
Many embassies have warned their citizens to stay away from areas of the city where violence could erupt.
Associated Press writer Thanyarat Doksone and photographer David Longstreath contributed to this report.