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.

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