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The demonstrators plan to meet around the country before converging on the capital, Bangkok, on Sunday.
They are mainly supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006.
They say they plan to rally until Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva calls new elections.
The government has promised a tough reaction if the protests set to begin on Friday turn violent.
The Internal Security Act has been invoked, giving the military the power to impose curfews and restrict numbers at gatherings.
Checkpoints have been set up on the roads into Bangkok.
The red shirt movement, led by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), has promised a huge but peaceful demonstration.
Smaller rallies, meetings and "political schools" have been planned for various provinces before convoys of vehicles carry protesters to the capital.
The red shirts' last major protests, in April last year, turned violent, with two deaths and dozens of people injured.
"If there is a siege, we would no longer consider it a peaceful protest and immediately take steps to disperse the crowds," Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said.
The protest leaders say the government is playing up the threat of violence to justify a possible crackdown.
The red shirts oppose the 2006 military coup that toppled Thaksin Shinawatra.
They say Prime Minister Abhisit came to power illegitimately with the backing of the military and the Bangkok-based elites.
Mr Thaksin's power base was in the rural north. He is now living in self-imposed exile in Dubai to avoid a jail term on a corruption conviction.
Last month the Supreme Court ruled that just over half of the assets ($1.4bn; £910m) belonging to Mr Thaksin or his family which were frozen since the coup, should be seized.