BANGKOK - Thai "red shirts" rallied outside parliament on Thursday to demand the removal of judges whose order to halt a parliamentary debate on changes to the constitution has sparked fears of a fresh round of political turmoil.
The red shirts, who are mostly supporters of self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and a government led by his sister, fear last week's Constitutional Court suspension has laid the foundation for a "judicial coup" to topple a pro-Thaksin government for the third time in six years.
The judges intervened to allow time to look at complaints by the opposition that the constitution might be changed in a way that could pose a threat to the revered monarchy. The opposition also says the amendment plan is a ploy to whitewash Thaksin of his graft conviction.
Thursday's rally came as anti-Thaksin "yellow shirts"threaten to rebuild their once formidable movement, which held mass protests that proved instrumental in the downfall of Thaksin and his allies in 2006 and 2008. At least 3,500 yellow shirts shut down the parliament on Friday, the same day as the court decision.
The ruling Puea Thai Party and the red shirts, both of which are believed to be under Thaksin's control, are suspicious of the timing of the judicial ruling and the yellow shirt revival and say the judges have no power to stop the debate.
More than 1,000 red shirts closed a road outside parliament on Thursday and prepared to hand over a petition to the lower house speaker demanding the judges be removed.
"The court overstepped its authority," Jatuporn Prompan, a red-shirt leader, told reporters. "This could also be interpreted as a way of trying to overthrow the government."
Thaksin, ousted in a military coup in 2006, remains central to Thailand's seven-year political crisis. He has long argued that the judiciary is influenced by his enemies among the conservative elite and army top brass.
A fragile peace has prevailed in the 11 months since his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was elected prime minister, but her government's moves to alter the constitution and declare a general amnesty for political offences - almost certain to include Thaksin - have angered the opposition and yellow shirts.
That fury boiled over into a brawl between rival parties in parliament on May 30 and then a blockade of the chamber by yellow shirts two days later.
Consumer confidence fell in May for the first time in six months, in part due to fears of political turmoil.
Parliament is set to discuss the court order on Friday and how to proceed with the debate on the constitution. If lawmakers defy the court's suspension, their parties could be dissolved.
The yellow shirt protest prompted the government to postpone a separate debate on a reconciliation bill, which is expected to include an amnesty, until August.
The yellow shirts welcomed the delay and the court's suspension, but warned they would stage a protracted rally if the government tried to bring Thaksin home a free man.