Thousands of anti-government protesters are marching on Thailand’s two main telecommunications enterprises in Bangkok in an effort to paralyse the government.
They have begun surrounding offices of Telephone Organisation of Thailand (TOT) and Communications Authority of Thailand (CAT), two vital state companies which handle domestic and international telecommunication services.
“We will control the area, like we did at the Finance Ministry, and ask staff not to work. So on Monday everything will shut down,” Akanat Promphan, spokesman for the opposition Civil Movement for Democracy, told AFP news agency.
But the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology insisted that back-up systems were in place and communications in Thailand would not be affected.
The protesters – a mix of royalists, southerners and the urban middle class collectively called the Yellow Shirt movement – are united by their dislike for Thaksin Shinawatra, the controversial former prime minister.
The one-time telecoms tycoon was toppled in a military coup in 2006 and lives in self-imposed exile, but he is widely believed to be the real power behind the government of his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra.
For their part, pro-Thaksin Red Shirts, who have so far shown no intention of taking to the streets, gathered in a stadium in Bangkok early on Saturday,
Al Jazeera’s Wayne Hay, reporting from the area, said students from the adjoining Ramkamhaeng University gathered to express their objection to the Red Shirts using the stadium and pledged to block the connecting road.
‘Victory day’ planned
The Yellow Shirts are demanding the end of the “Thaksin regime” and want to replace the government with an unelected “people’s council”.
Suthep Thaugsuban, the protest leader and a former Thai deputy prime minister, said the demonstrators remained “very upbeat”.
“If we demolish the Thaksin regime … we will set up a people’s council, which will come from people from every sector,” he said.
Several thousand anti-government protesters were scattered across five bases in Bangkok on Saturday, according to city police.
Reporting from the city’s centre, Al Jazeera’s Scott Heidler said the government had made an effort to keep the Red Shirts away from the Yellow Shirts.
“They have kept the two sides separate, mainly because they are very concerned about these protests turning violent,” he said.
Turnout was expected to surge over the weekend as organisers seek a final push before celebrations for Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday on December 5, which is traditionally marked in an atmosphere of calm and respect.
The protest organisers have declared Sunday a “day of victory”, with plans to gather near the heavily guarded Government House, besiege more important buildings – even Bangkok’s zoo – and to tighten their blockade of government ministries.
Demonstrators forced open the gates of the compound of the army headquarters in Bangkok and occupied the lawn inside for several hours on Friday, calling on the military to support their fight to bring down the government.
It was the latest in a string of provocative moves targeting a symbol of state power, which have made headlines but failed to push the government into acting to disperse their rallies.
“The prime minister has given clear orders for authorities to deal leniently with protesters and not to use violence,” Pracha Promnog, a deputy prime minister, said on television on Saturday.
Sean Boonpracong, Thailand’s national security adviser, earlier told Al Jazeera that the government wanted to arrest the organisers of the demonstrations, but not the masses who were taking part.
Yingluck has faced down several legal and institutional challenges in recent weeks from the opposition Democrat Party, many of whose members have taken to the streets with the anti-government protesters.
The protests escalated after her ruling Puea Thai party tried to introduce an amnesty that could have allowed Thaksin’s return, and have continued despite the Senate’s rejection of the bill.
Puea Thai came to power in 2011 elections on a wave of Thaksin support, after a bloody 2010 military crackdown on Red Shirt protests under the then Democrat-led government left some 90 people dead.
Thaksin is adored by many of the country’s rural and urban working class but hated by many southerners, middle-class Thais and the Bangkok elite, who see him as corrupt and a threat to the monarchy.
Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election for more than a decade but Yingluck has given no indication that she is thinking of calling fresh polls as a way out of the crisis.
In a statement released on Friday, Prayuth Chan-O-Cha, the Thai army chief, urged protesters to respect “the democratic process under the law”, urging people to come together.