Bangkok: Police in Bangkok fired tear gas to disperse swarms of anti-government protesters who began gathering Saturday for a rally that was expected to be the biggest since Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra took office last year.
Yingluck had ordered more than 15,000 police into the streets and invoked a special security law this week ahead of the rally, which was expected to draw tens of thousands of protesters. The prime minister accused the demonstrators of seeking to overthrow the government and warned of possible violence.
The demonstration was being organized by a royalist group calling itself "Pitak Siam" â€” or "Protect Thailand." It serves as a sharp reminder of the deep political divisions that have split the country since the army toppled Yingluck's brother Thaksin Shinawatra in a 2006 military coup.
The focal point of Saturday's rally was Bangkok's Royal Plaza, a public space near Parliament that has been used by protesters in the past.
Police were allowing protesters into the site, and two roads leading to it were open. But in an effort to control access, security forces erected concrete barriers on another road leading to Royal Plaza.
When between 50 to 100 protesters tried to break through one of the barriers, a contingent of around 500 police fired tear gas and beat them back with batons.
While Pitak Siam is a newcomer to Thailand's protest scene, it is linked to the well-known "Yellow Shirt" protesters, whose rallies led to Thaksin's overthrow. The same movement later toppled a Thaksin-allied elected government after occupying and shutting down Bangkok's two airports for a week in 2008.
Thaksin remains a divisive figure in Thai politics. The Yellow Shirts and their allies say he is personally corrupt and accuse him of seeking to undermine the popular constitutional monarch charges Thaksin denies.
Yingluck was taking Saturday's rally seriously. Her Cabinet invoked the Internal Security Act on Thursday in three Bangkok districts around the protest site, and she later addressed the nation to explain the move, citing concerns of violence.
The security act allows authorities to close roads, impose curfews and ban use of electronic devices in designated areas.
Measures began taking effect Thursday night, with police closing roads around Yingluck's office, the Government House, and placing extra security at the homes of senior officials, including the prime minister.
In a nationally televised address Thursday, Yingluck said protest leaders "seek to overthrow an elected government and democratic rule ... And there is evidence that violence may be used to achieve those ends."