Thousands of anti-government protesters marched through the Thai capital yesterday, a prelude to a broader action next week when they say they will shut down Bangkok in their bid to scuttle an election next month and topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The protesters, who accuse Yingluck of being the puppet of her self-exiled brother and former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, have vowed to stop the February 2 election. Instead, they want an appointed "people's council" to oversee reforms before any future vote.
The crisis has dragged on for weeks and has hit the Thai economy. It pits Yingluck and her brother and their support base among the rural poor in the populous north against protesters who draw support from Bangkok's conservative elite and middle classes and the south.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a fiery former deputy prime minister from the main opposition Democrat Party, said two more marches would be held tomorrow and Thursday leading up to the January 13 "shutdown".
Watch: Protesters mobilising ahead of January 13 stoppage
That event is shaping up as the biggest confrontation since the latest round of largely peaceful protests began in November.
The protests at times have brought as many as 200,000 people to the streets of the capital, but have also sparked sporadic clashes with police in which three people were killed and scores wounded.
"We will keep walking, we won't stop," Suthep said on the march. "We will walk until we win and we won't give up."
Sunday's march began at Bangkok's Democracy Monument, where some supporters had gathered overnight. Suthep said the protesters would set up stages at five rallying points throughout the city leading up to next Monday.
"It is our first march of the year to kick things off for the shutdown," said a spokeswoman for the anti-government movement, Anchalee Paireerak.
They plan to shut down government offices in an attempt to force Yingluck's administration to a standstill but, mindful of bloody crackdowns by police on similar protests, they have also said they would minimise the impact on ordinary Thais and would not target airports.
The protests since November have been the biggest in Thailand since 2010, when mostly "red shirt" supporters of Thaksin tried to bring down a Democrat-led government.
Those protests led to a military crackdown in which 91 people were killed.
Yingluck has steadfastly refused to bow to the protesters' demands and is determined that the election, which her Puea Thai party is almost certain to win, will go ahead.
"I admit that the election may not be a panacea to solve the problems immediately," Yingluck said in a post on her Facebook page yesterday. "But the election is the best medicine to help solve conflict under the democratic system.
"I don't want to see violence as it happened in 2010, or an economic crisis. We should not leave our children to inherit this conflict," she said.
The government has vowed to roll out some 20,000 police and 20 companies of troops to maintain order during the protests. Concurrently, the red shirts have also promised to hold rallies outside Bangkok to counter the anti-government group.
Thousands of Puea Thai supporters gathered in a Bangkok suburb on Saturday for the party's official campaign launch.
Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election since 2001, based on their support among the rural poor who have benefited from Thaksin's populist policies such as cheap health care, easy credit and subsidies for rice farmers.
The anti-government protesters accuse Thaksin of effectively buying their support and manipulating Thailand's democracy, while also enriching his family and business associates.
The first two years of Yingluck's government had been relatively smooth until a blunder by her party in November, when it tried to push through an unpopular amnesty bill that would have exonerated Thaksin from a 2008 graft conviction he says was politically motivated.
Thaksin fled into exile shortly before he was sentenced to a two-year jail term.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse