The red shirts have kept to the sidelines during the past
4-1/2 months of political unrest in Thailand, while
anti-government protesters forced state offices to close and
disrupted an election in February.
Any further threat to Yingluk could see their patience snap,
warned Jatuporn Prompan, who became leader of the United Front
for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), as the red shirts are
formally known, at the weekend.
Thousands of supporters attended the rally in Ayutthaya north of
Bangkok to witness the change of leadership.
"We're going to fight tooth and nail to defend this government
but we will do so peacefully," Jatuporn told Reuters on Monday.
"Thailand's political crisis will not end with these street
protests. This is about the Bangkok elite denying grassroots
people the right to play a part in the democratic process. We
can't let this go on."
The crisis pits protesters, mainly middle class Bangkok
residents and southerners backed by the military and the
establishment, against supporters of Yingluck and her brother,
ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, from the rural north
If the red shirts were to launch counter protests it would risk
escalating violence, and could further destabilize Yingluk's
government. Their restraint, however, could disappear, under the
Jatuporn helped organize the uprising against a previous
government that ended in a bloody military crackdown in May
2010, and supporters like his no-nonsense attitude.
He replaced Thida Thawornseth, a former member of the banned
Communist Party of Thailand whose schoolteacher demeanor and
lofty speeches left some wondering whether she was out of touch
with the movement's grassroots supporters.
"Thida had the theories, but Jatuporn is a man of action. We can
count on him to lead us," said Chinawoot Eak-pan, an office
security guard and red shirt supporter from Bangkok.
Jatuporn still faces terrorism charges related to the violence
On Monday, Thai army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha called Jatuporn "a
bandit", telling reporters that "if they (red shirts) are
aggressive towards the military, I'll be aggressive, too".
WARNING OF HAVOC
Weakened by the agitation against her,Yingluck faces a raft of
legal challenges that could force her out, the most prominent
being charges of negligence over a ruinous rice subsidy scheme.
Twenty-three people have been killed in politically related
violence in Bangkok and eastern Thailand since late November.
On Monday, two home-made bombs were found and destroyed by bomb
disposal teams outside the Office of the Attorney General in
Bangkok, police said.
With the noose tightening around Yingluck's Puea Thai Party,
many government supporters believe Jatuporn's skills as a fiery
orator will rally the support her government needs to hold on.
Red shirt supporters say they are prepared to fight back if the
government they helped put in office is removed.
Despite signs of a split in the movement, the red shirts remain
a potent force and are largely loyal to Thaksin, seen by many as
the real power in the country.
The protesters in Bangkok say they want to curb Thaksin's
influence, remove Yingluck and install an unelected "People's
Council" that would oversee wide-ranging political reforms to
dilute their chances of winning election again.
Jatuporn has said he will avoid a confrontation with the
demonstrators but some analysts say it could still happen.
"He's capable, if Thaksin told him to, of having the red shirts
engage in violence," said Paul Chambers, director of research at
the Institute of South East Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai. "There
is a message that is being sent to the elite with Jatuporn's
accession, which is: 'This is the person who really might create
havoc for you'."
(Editing by Alan Raybould and Simon Cameron-Moore)
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