Red Shirt v Yellow Shirt: Thailand's political struggle

The supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra are massing again

In northern Thailand, the world has been turned upside down. Men branded terrorists are heroes, the police are the enemy and children wear T-shirts hailing anti-government rebels. Driven from power, branded a criminal and hounded by prosecutors, the exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is venerated here, his smiling features emblazoned on cups, flags and dolls at a rally of his supporters in this provincial town. Polls taken in this district put his support at more than 70 per cent.

Three months ago, Thaksin's Red Shirt supporters – many from this area – were violently cleared from the Bangkok streets after occupying the city centre for nine weeks. When the smoke had lifted, at least 90 people were dead, 2,000 injured and the centre of one of Asia's most freewheeling, laid-back cities resembled a war zone. Police have since arrested many of the leaders and smashed their support network. But here in Lamphun, 420 miles and a political world away from the capital, the protesters are preparing for their comeback.

"I am one million per cent certain that the Red Shirts will return," said Sriwan Janhong, one of the movement's local leaders.

Like many of the leadership, he is fighting terrorism charges and was forced last month to close his restaurant business in nearby Chiang Mai city. "When you push people down, they come back violently," he warned.

At a rally in a warehouse, thousands of supporters pledged to fight back. "The struggle won't end until the government allows free elections and listens to us," said one, who identified herself as Dao. "We're showing today that we're still alive."

Despite government claims to have restored order, Thailand remains more bitterly divided than ever between these mostly poor people and the country's conservative, military and royalist elite. The Reds accuse conservatives of eviscerating Thailand's state in the name of protecting the country's ailing king.

Their Yellow-shirted opponents say Mr Thaksin is manipulating this movement from abroad to engineer a comeback. Most believe that the colour-coded political struggle that has convulsed the country since Mr Thaksin was dumped from power in a bloodless coup in 2006 will again erupt into violence.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Prime Minister, has in effect declared war on the Red Shirts since the Bangkok siege ended, drawing up draconian laws and reshuffling the government and military to strengthen the anti-rebel ranks. General Prayuth Chan-ocha, a key figure in the 2006 coup, is set to take over as army chief. The authorities have been given a mostly free hand to round up the rebels and their supporters. Some 40,000 websites have been shut down, according to the Bangkok Post; website users, operators and service providers have been arrested. The Red Shirts say some people have simply been disappeared. "It's a witch hunt," said Dao, who works as a foreign tour guide.

Dao and her colleagues are driven by anger at what they see as a political system stacked hopelessly against them. It was people like her who turned out five years ago in record numbers to vote Mr Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party into power by a landslide. A year after the 2006 coup, they elected his party back into office, despite the military government's best attempts to move the constitutional goalposts. The army and royalists then used the courts to dissolve the party and backed a new government led by Mr Abhisit's Democrats.

Critics of the Red Shirts say that they are thugs and anarchists, led by a man who became enormously rich while in office, killed thousands in his battles against drugs and the restive south, and censored the press. But few doubt that if Mr Thaksin were to return from exile, he would win again.

"They feel that they are not being fairly treated by the government, and that is fuelling their resentment," said Surapong Tovichakchaikul, an opposition lawmaker in nearby Chiang Mai province who attended the rally as an observer. He rejects government claims that the Red Shirts who took over Bangkok were terrorists or that their campaign is orchestrated from abroad by Mr Thaksin. "He is a figurehead. Terrorists have bombs and guns – where are these weapons? The government never seized any. They're just using that excuse to ban them."

Around the nearby small town of San Kamphaeng in Chiang Mai province, where Mr Thaksin and his family ran a silk business, his portrait can be found on public walls and in local restaurants. This is the political heartland of the businessman-turned politician, who made over a billion dollars when he sold his stake in his giant telecom conglomerate, Shin Corporation. There is little support here for the government's claims that he was kicked out for tax evasion, selling off national assets and insulting the King. "He's a politician, so he wasn't perfect, but he did a lot for ordinary people," said one shopkeeper. The government has taken little action against the Yellows, who took over Government House and occupied the country's main international airport for a week in 2008. "It's just complete double standards," says Mr Janhong. "All the attention is on us."

Radio presenters debate if fascism is creeping into Thailand, recalling how it arose in Europe as an elite reaction to the growing clout of the rural and urban poor. The Reds say conservatives are using Thailand's arcane lèse majesté laws to stifle protest and throttle debate. Few are safe from increasingly wild accusations of insulting the king – rural peasants, foreign reporters, even the political establishment. Lèse majesté is punishable with up to 15 years in jail.

The world's longest-reigning monarch, King Bhumibol, 82, is in fragile health, and has reportedly been in hospital for most of the last year. Some believe that his death could be the trigger for the long-awaited showdown between Reds and Yellows. One of the few places in Thailand where the King's portrait cannot be found is at Red Shirt rallies. Instead, stalls in Lamphun sell DVDs celebrating the Battle of Bangkok and T-shirts bearing the picture of Khattiya Sawasdipol, the renegade Thai general who joined the Red side in Bangkok and was shot dead. On the stage, one of the Red Shirts' core national leaders, Jatuporn Prompan, was speaking. A veteran democracy activist and a member of the Thai parliament, Jatuporn is one of the few leaders not under lock and key. "Our fight will go on," he told the crowd. "Death will not stop us."

Colour-coded rebels

The Red Shirts

The group, officially named the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, is largely made up of rural workers, students and activists. While Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister, is a key figure, not all the Red Shirts want him back in power. He became popular for funding healthcare and education reforms for the masses, but was criticised for leading a violent campaign against a Muslim insurgency.

The Yellow Shirts

The People's Alliance for Democracy was behind street protests that led to the coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. The loose grouping of royalists (the yellow is the colour of the king) and businessmen accused Mr Thaksin of corruption. Its leadership has links with the military and the royal circle. After Mr Thaksin's allies won a post-coup election, the Yellow Shirts staged fresh protests that led to another change in power.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
Life and Style
The veteran poverty campaigner Sir Bob Geldof issues a stark challenge to emerging economies at the Melbourne HIV/Aids conference
health
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich talk Penguins of Madagascar at Comic-Con
comic-con 2014Cumberbatch fans banned from asking about Sherlock at Comic-Con
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
filmGuardians Of The Galaxy should have taken itself a bit more seriously, writes Geoffrey Macnab
News
Sir Chris Hoy won six Olympic golds - in which four events?
news
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee Recruitment Consultants - Banking & Finance

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Graduate Recruitment Resourcers - Banking Technologies

£18000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: Huxley Associates are looking...

Implementation Engineer

£150 - £200 per day: Orgtel: Implementation Engineer Hampshire / London (Gre...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Pharmacuetical

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: Real Staffing, one of the UK'...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform