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Red Shirts mark New Year with new protest pledge

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BANGKOK >> Thousands of anti-government demonstrators marched in Bangkok on Sunday, saying they had learned lessons from chaotic violence last year and had a new strategy for the new year.

About 10,000 “Red Shirt” protesters gathered at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument and clogged traffic as they marched to an upscale shopping area where massive crowds of protesters had camped for weeks last year before soldiers swept through and arrested top protest leaders.

A brief scuffle occurred Sunday at the shopping area’s main intersection, which police had attempted to seal off with barricades. A few hundred protesters hurled plastic water bottles and pushed past the police, who stepped aside to avoid further conflict. The larger protest appeared to be peaceful.

Jatuporn Prompan, a Red Shirt leader who avoided arrest because he has parliamentary immunity, vowed to hold “frequent and symbolic gatherings” twice a month— a change from the large sit-in last year that lasted 10 weeks and prompted a violent crackdown.

“We have learned a lesson that big gatherings will not lead to the result we want,” Jatuporn said.

About 90 people were killed and more than 1,400 were wounded in the March-May unrest, as the protesters tried to force Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to call early elections. They claim he came to power illegitimately with the help of the military. Many are supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006.

Sunday’s protest was the first since Abhisit’s government lifted a state of emergency in Bangkok on Dec. 22 that technically barred gatherings of more than five people. The ban was widely ignored by the Red Shirt movement, which continues to be active and is treated as a major threat by the government.

More than 1,000 police turned out to provide security for the demonstration. The protesters planned to disperse by evening.

The gathering was called to mourn those killed during last year’s violence and to demand the release of Red Shirt leaders who were detained on terrorism charges. Protesters say the government is using heavy-handed measures to suppress the movement.

“It’s been too long. It is time for the protest leaders to be released,” said one demonstrator, 53-year-old fruit vendor Suk Janbuttarat. “Justice must be returned to Thailand. There has been no progress in any investigation regarding the Red Shirt deaths, or terrorism charges.”

Although the violence has subsided, the Red Shirt movement exposed a deep rich-poor divide in Thailand that remains unresolved.

Occasional but growing protests in the capital have continued since the military crackdown on the Red Shirt encampment on May 19. Authorities have used their emergency powers to silence anti-government media.

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