Bangkok: Supporters of Thailand`s main opposition party rallied in Bangkok on Friday in the first big political gathering since a deadly military crackdown on anti-government protesters two months ago.
At least 4,000 massed at a theme park ahead of a pivotal Bangkok by-election in a defiant show of support for a detained "red shirt" protest leader representing the Puea Thai Party, the movement`s powerful parliamentary arm.
Supporters dressed in red braved the rain to rally in spite of a state of emergency in place across a quarter of the country since fierce fighting, arson and deadly riots in May that marked the worst political violence in Thailand`s modern history.
The gathering was the latest sign of rebellion by "red shirt" supporters who have been driven underground by a draconian emergency decree that has allowed swathes of arrests without charge, bans on public gatherings and broad media censorship.
Illegal demonstrations by "red shirts" have taken place at the upscale Rachaprasong intersection they had occupied in downtown Bangkok to draw attention to the 90 people who died and 2,000 who were wounded during the clashes between soldiers and protesters in April and May.
The government allowed the campaign rally to take place to ensure fair play ahead of Sunday`s vote, although the Puea Thai candidate, Korkaew Pikulthong, remained in detention.
"For the liberty of the people, the equality of the public, democracy in Thailand and for the world to know that Thai people hate injustice, vote number four -- Korkaew," a party member said on stage, reading a hand-written letter by Korkaew.
Korkaew is one of 12 senior "red shirt" figures being held on terror charges having been denied bail. Others have fled into hiding, some pledging to turn themselves in when the state of emergency is lifted.
Both Puea Thai and the "red shirts" are believed to be led by Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled, graft-convicted former billionaire premier ousted in a 2006 coup by the royalist, pro-establishment army.
He has been accused by the government of ordering the riots and bankrolling protests that shut down Bangkok`s commercial heart for seven weeks in pursuit of immediate elections.
While not expected to win the by-election in Bangkok, a traditional stronghold of the incumbent Democrat Party, Korkaew`s campaign highlights the resilience of the pro-Thaksin movement and the deepening social and political divisions that have plagued Southeast Asia`s second-biggest economy for five years.
The "red shirts" have said they will not return to the streets any time soon, but many of their supporters say they are ready to resume protests if called upon.
They are hoping to ride a wave of public discontent and feelings of injustice and disenfranchisement to ensure Puea Thai win the next election and power is returned to another pro-Thaksin populist party.