BANGKOK - More than 20,000 supporters of former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra rallied in the historic heart of Bangkok on Monday, seeking a royal pardon for the fugitive billionaire and illustrating a deep political divide.
Officials from the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the red shirts, gave hundreds of boxes containing a petition finally put at 3.5 million signatures to a representative of the king outside Bangkok's Grand Palace.
The people are here today not because of me but because they feel fed up with three years of injustice, Thaksin, ousted in a military coup in 2006 and now in self-imposed exile, told the crowd by telephone from an undisclosed location abroad.
We now count on His Majesty's good grace in helping reconcile Thailand, he added.
Despite fears of clashes, the crowd dispersed peacefully soon after the petition was submitted.
Monday's rally was the fourth big show of support for the former telecoms tycoon since a crackdown by the military in April, demonstrating the resilience of the pro-Thaksin movement.
One of the UDD's leaders, Veera Misikapong, said 3.5 million people had signed the petition, nearly two million short of the figure mentioned earlier.
We found names that were planted by our enemies so we deleted them, he told the crowd, without elaborating.
Veera said the UDD would continue its campaign to press Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to resign.
The petition asked 81-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej to allow Thaksin to return from exile a free man. Legal experts said there was little chance he would receive a pardon. Royalists said the petition had to be submitted in person or by a family member.
King Bhumibol, the world's longest-reigning monarch, is officially above politics but has intervened at times of crisis.
INVESTORS MONITOR UNREST
While the sight of thousands of protesters in a grassy square in front of the Grand Palace will probably add to the unease of tourists, a pillar of the Thai economy, investors in local stocks took solace at the lack of violence on Monday.
The political factor is only adding light pressure to stock market sentiment, said Pichai Lertsupongkij, head of sales at Thanachart Securities. Investors are monitoring the situation.
However, the rallies complicate the Oxford-educated Abhisit's efforts to end Thailand's first recession in a decade, underlining the difficulty of uniting a deeply polarized country and a fragile six-party coalition government.
The petition has outraged powerful royalists who support Abhisit and accuse Thaksin and his backers of insulting the revered monarch by trying to drag him into a political dispute.
Most commentators say the motive behind the petition is to highlight Thaksin's mass support and to keep his movement alive.
Thaksin won landslide election victories in 2001 and 2005.
He was found guilty of corruption last October and sentenced in absentia to two years in prison. He denies the charges and still commands a loyal following, especially among the poor in vote-rich rural areas.
(Additional reporting by Chalathip Thirasoonthrakul and Viparat Jantraprapaweth; Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Alan Raybould and Sugita Katyal)