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The fuel behind Thailand red-shirt protesters' fire

Thailand's red-shirt protesters accepted a government reconciliation roadmap on Tuesday. But they refused to end their demonstrations, which have left 27 people dead.

By Correspondent / May 4, 2010

Red Shirts: A Thai Buddhist monk (c.) rides in an antigovernment convoy.

Eric Gaillard/Reuters


Bangkok, Thailand

Antigovernment "red shirt" protesters have laid siege to key parts of Bangkok since March 12, the latest unrest in nearly five years of turmoil that have shaken Thailand's political foundations. On Tuesday they accepted the government's roadmap for reconciliation – which could bring elections by November – but said they want additional concessions and will not yet abandon their sit-ins. Commentators have warned of civil war if no political compromise is reached, in a country whose modern history is strewn with coups, countercoups, and half-baked constitutions.

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Who are red shirts, yellow shirts?

The red shirts, or the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), emerged after a 2006 coup to oppose the junta. They are supported by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who lives in exile and has been convicted of corruption.

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UDD backers are mostly rural and working-class. Many want to see the return of Mr. Thaksin and his populist economic policies. They reject current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva as illegitimate and unelected.

The movement has staged rallies in Bangkok of 100,000-plus. Critics say they are paid pawns in Thaksin's scheme to regain power. The UDD also has a shadowy armed wing of former and active security personnel. It has allies in the security forces.

The yellow shirts, or People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), laid the groundwork for the 2006 coup. A conservative alliance of Bangkok and southern factions, it staged mass rallies against Thaksin in 2006, then reappeared in 2008 to oppose another elected pro-Thaksin government. The second round included a seizure of two Bangkok airports.

The PAD is supported by middle- to upper-class voters, and is stridently royalist. Its rallies are mostly peaceful, but it recently urged martial law to disperse the red shirts.

What is behind the cycle of protests?

Street protests have shaped modern Thai politics. In 1973, students in Bangkok overthrew a military dictatorship, with support from King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a constitutional monarch. In 1992, protesters faced down an unpopular junta leader. King Bhumibol intervened to mediate after troops killed unarmed protesters.

The rise of Thaksin, a rich businessman who built a mass political base, changed the equation. Instead of opposing a dictator, the PAD mobilized against a popular, elected leader. When it succeeded, its rivals took to the streets and used the same tactics.

The result is a cycle of protests and counterprotests that has polarized public opinion along class and regional lines and undermined parliamentary democracy. The elderly Bhumibol's influence has waned. The red shirts are growing to resent him.