Thailand protests: Meet the 'Red Shirts', the pro-government Shinawatra supporters of the north

Sunday’s election has done little to calm the country’s political crisis. As protesters maintain calls for the PM to step down, supporters in her heartland tell Andrew Buncombe they are ready to face her challengers on the streets

San Kamphaeng 

The market in San Kamphaeng is home to a sinus-opening collection of aromas – fermented fish and fresh meat, resplendent limes and gleaming chillies, combining to create a pungent mix.

It also houses a collection of equally powerful opinions in favour of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister, Yingluck, Thailand’s current premier.

Seen as local leaders who worked to help local, working people, it is hard to find anyone who does not profess devotion to the family. People here are outraged by the anti-government protesters who in recent weeks besieged in Bangkok and deeply insulted by comments some of them have made about people from the north.

“I feel so furious when I watch those speeches,” said Amporm Khampidan, a 63-year-old woman in a purple dress who was serving noodle soup. “My children tell me not to watch the TV because I get so angry.”

The entire north and north-east of Thailand is considered the heartland of Mr Thaksin’s support, yet nowhere is that support stronger than in San Kamphaeng, the town located 12 miles east of Chiang Mai where the former prime minister grew up. An uncle still lives close to the market, while a short walk away is the family cemetery, quiet but for birdsong, where the ashes of members of the Shinawatra clan are buried.

While the protesters in Bangkok who have demanded Ms Yingluck’s resignation say they will not back down, here the so-called “Red Shirts” who have supported Mr Thaksin and his sister, are equally adamant that they will fight to save her. Some leaders have said if the army were to step in and force Ms Yingluck out by means of coup – as happened to her brother in 2006 – they could break away and form a government-in-exile.

So far the Red Shirts, a political pressure group formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) and allied to Mr Thaksin’s Pheu Thai party, have largely avoided confronting the anti-government protesters. But they have plenty of experience of demonstrating themselves; in 2010 Red Shirts seized control of parts of Bangkok as they protested against the previous government. The army was eventually called in to clear them and dozens of people died.

They said if the government was overthrown, they would rally and take to the streets. Some reports have claimed the Red Shirts have also been carrying out military training in preparation. When asked about this, senior officials say it is impossible to know what everyone in the movement might be doing.

“We don’t want to mobilise to confront [the anti-government protesters] now because that could be a pretext for military intervention,” said Lt Col Supon Fumuljaroen, a former police chief who is a senior UDD official and is considered a confidante of Mr Thaksin. “We don’t want to give them that pretext because everyday they are calling for the military to come out.”

While there have been some small rallies by the Red Shirts, Mr Supon, who went to school with Mr Thaksin, said the movement had decided to try and wait out the anti-government protesters rather than travel in large numbers to Bangkok to meet them in the the streets.

He said the numbers of anti-government protesters were dwindling and their funds running low. Yet if the Red Shirts went there, he said, emotions might run too high to control. “In our houses, we want to have them beheaded.”

The north and north east of Thailand have always felt different to other parts of the country. For many years, Chiang Mai was a separate kingdom, dominated by neighbouring Burma, before it was annexed by Siam in the 18th Century. Today, people in the north claim they pay far more taxes to the central authorities in Bangkok than they ever receive.

After he first came to office in 2001, Mr Thaksin introduced a series of measures that people here say directly helped them – small loans, education facilities and most-mentioned of all, a health care service for which people have to pay just 30 Baht (about 56 pence).

Pun Wongya, a 71-year-old agricultural labourer from the village of Ban Mai, said that a few years ago he had required an operation on his hand. With a salary of just £5 a day, the procedure would have been beyond his means. Yet thanks to the schemes of Mr Thaksin, who currently lives in Dubai, he had to pay only the nominal sum.

Last Sunday, when Mr Pun cast his vote in the general election, he supported Ms Yingluck and her Pheu Thai party-led government. Breaking from his work watering a field of tobacco plants hand, Mr Pun said: “Life got better under Thaksin. But I still have to work like this.”

In recent weeks, the anti-government protesters in Bangkok, headed by former deputy prime minister, Suthep Thaugsuban, have stepped up their demands for Ms Yingluck to go. They have marched, protested and seized control of ministries.

After the prime minister dissolved the parliament and called an election, they declined to take part. On Sunday, they also blocked two million people from casting their vote.

Mr Suthep, who heads the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) and who faces two arrest warrants, has said the country’s electoral system must be reformed before a meaningful vote can be had.

Mr Suthep, who heads a coalition of middle-class people, elements of the establishment as well as farmers and working people who are fed up with Mr Thaksin, has talked of appointed “people’s committees” rather than a government. A number of supporters have said people in the north and north-east are “uneducated” and that Mr Thaksin has simply bought their support.

In the north, such comments are perceived with contempt. While analysts believe it very unlikely that the north would break from the rest of the country, people here say the attitude of people in the capital makes them ready to split.

They also believe they are self-sufficient. They have an airport, a major tourist hub in Chiang Mai and the opportunity for even closer trading links with Burma and China, the borders of which are both considerably closer than Bangkok.

“They are critical of us for suggesting the idea of secession, but the people in Bangkok cannot even grow food,” said Khamsai Audomsi, who runs a market stall in San Kamphaeng and is a UDD member. “To these people – the people in Bangkok, the PDRC, the people on Facebook – I say ‘We grow food. You rely on our food’.”

Mr Supon, the senior UDD leader, said the country’s constitution allowed for secession if power was seized, as it has been numerous times in the past by the military.

“We will set up a government in defiance of them,” he said. “They can occupy Bangkok and we will have the north, the north-east and part of the central area. But right now, the constitution is still in place so we don’t need to talk about it officially.”

Thailand: The heart of the matter

Who is Thaksin Shinawatra?

At the heart of the turmoil is the divisive former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Despite being ousted in a 2006 coup, he dominates the country’s political scene from Dubai, where he lives in exile, avoiding corruption charges at home. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was elected as Premier in 2011, but her bid to pass an amnesty to allow her brother’s return failed, and has fuelled the opposition.

What sparked the protests?

Yingluck’s failed amnesty bid was a catalyst for the protests that began last October, but divisions have simmered for years. In 2010, the anger that Thaksin supporters felt after the coup boiled over into widespread demonstrations. More than 90 people were killed when the army stepped in to crush the movement.

What do the protesters want?

This time, it is the anti-Thaksin protesters who are out on the streets. The opposition (which was likely to have lost) boycotted Sunday’s ballot and prevented an estimated two million people from voting, meaning the election could be annulled. Meanwhile, as protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban fights to unseat Yingluck, to make way for an unelected “people’s council”, Bangkok remains under a state of emergency.

Enjoli Liston

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