BANGKOK— The red-shirted supporters of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said on Wednesday they were ready to take to the streets to protect her embattled government from an elite-backed protest movement seeking to install unelected leaders.
The warning by Thailand's mostly working poor "red shirts" highlights the risks ahead in a political crisis fuelled by middle-class anger over the electoral and legislative power of the Shinawatra family, revered as populist heroes in the vote-rich north and northeast, red-shirt bastions.
The crisis has veered from violent protests in which five people were killed and more than 300 wounded to occupations of government buildings and, in recent days, bewildering statements by anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a veteran politician who resigned from the opposition to lead the protesters.
He has called on police to arrest Yingluck for treason, ordered civil servants to report to him instead of the government and called for citizen "peacekeeping forces" to take over from police. On Wednesday, he told the army and police chiefs to report to him by Thursday.
"We have set the time of 8 p.m. Thursday as our deadline to meet with security heads," he told reporters.
It's unclear if they will listen. But missed deadlines have become the norm for a protest movement that has relied on the oxygen of publicity and openly courted anarchy on the streets of the capital in the hope of triggering a military coup or judicial intervention to bring down Yingluck.
Threatened national strikes have failed to materialize. Police have ignored calls to withdraw from posts. Multiple deadlines for toppling the government have passed with Yingluck visibly shaken but still in power.
Demonstrations reached a crescendo on Monday when 160,000 people rallied in Bangkok, causing Yingluck to dissolve parliament and call a snap election for Feb. 2. That vote that may be meaningless if the opposition Democrat Party, which backs the protests, decide to boycott it.
Suthep, a silver-haired former deputy prime minister in the previous government that Yingluck's ruling party beat by a landslide in 2011, has pressed forward with a plan to install an unelected "people's council" made up of appointed "good people."
If that happens, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), as the red shirts are known, would rally to Yingluck's side, said Jatuporn Promphan, one of its leaders.
"It is the UDD's job to bring together en masse the red shirts and those who love democracy and don't agree with Suthep's methods. There will be many more people than Suthep managed to gather," he told Reuters in an interview.
Suthep, who a few weeks ago resigned the parliamentary seat he had held for 34 years, derives support from a small but powerful minority: the royalist elite in Bangkok and the opposition Democrats, the country's oldest party, which has failed to win an election since 1992.
In 2010, he authorized a crackdown by security forces that left downtown Bangkok burning and killed scores of red shirts, who say they remain supportive of Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and lives in self-exile to avoid jail for abuse of power charges that he says were politically motivated.
The impasse leaves Thailand gripped by a crisis that could drag on for weeks and possibly end with Suthep's group seizing power if the politically powerful military comes to his side, or if the judiciary gets involved, a familiar pattern in Thailand.
Although Thaksin or his allies have won every election of the past decade, the politicized courts have often intervened, annulling an election won by Thaksin in 2006 on a technicality and later dissolving his Thai Rak Thai Party for electoral fraud.
His party's next incarnation, the People's Power Party, suffered the same fate. Nearly 150 executives of both parties were banned for five years.
Suthep says his People's Council would eradicate the influence of Thaksin, a billionaire who remains a powerful force in Yingluck's government and sometimes convenes cabinet meetings by webcam from his villa in Dubai. Late on Tuesday, Suthep called for protesters to target Yingluck's entire family.
"When Suthep speaks he should bear in mind that there are millions of Thais who love Thaksin and love the Shinawatra family," red-shirt leader Thida Thawornseth told Reuters.
"Where does Suthep come off thinking he can speak on behalf of all Thais?" she added. "Suthep has said Yingluck cannot go anywhere in Thailand without being insulted. What about him? He is the one who should be worried."
The comments suggest the protests could lead to a wider conflict if Yingluck's elected government is forcibly removed.
After courts brought down two Thaksin-allied governments in 2008 and the Democrats came to power through a parliamentary vote believed to be orchestrated by the military, the red shirts paralyzed Bangkok in April-May 2010 with protests that ended with a bloody military crackdown.
A year later, the Democrats suffered badly in an election.
The red shirts cut short a rally on Dec. 1 after fatal clashes around the stadium where it was being held and postponed a mass demonstration that had been planned for Ayutthaya, to the north of Bangkok, on Dec. 10.
Asked what would bring them out on to the street, Jatuporn said: "When chaos ensues or when Suthep's side uses violent methods to gain power."
Akanat Promphan, Suthep's step-son and the movement's spokesman, said if Yingluck stepped down, the Senate would nominate a "neutral prime minister" and the "People's Council" would be the legislative body and help set up a "parallel government."