Hardline red shirt protesters still seek 'knockout punch' against Thai PM

While red shirt leaders in Bangkok have agreed to a road map to reconciliation with the Thai premier, red shirt protesters from northeast Thailand, a hotbed of antigovernment demonstrations, show no signs of backing down.

By , Correspondent

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    Antigovernment red shirt protesters read morning newspapers inside their barricaded encampment in Bangkok's financial district Friday. A peace plan put forward by Thailand's prime minister to end weeks of deadly protests was in limbo on Friday as the government and protesters squabbled over details, including a proposed early election in November.
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Every night, to cheers from the crowd, antigovernment protesters in this northeastern city board chartered buses bound for Bangkok. At police checkpoints, they stash their trademark red shirts and play dumb. For many it’s their second or third time to join the nonstop rallies that have roiled the Thai capital for nearly two months but may soon be over.

Red-shirt leaders said Friday that they had accepted Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s reconciliation road map which includes elections in November. They fell short of agreeing to end their marathon protest, though one leader said earlier that they would leave Monday, according to Thai media reports.

But in Thailand’s hardscrabble northeast, there is little sign of surrender. A convoy of hundreds of pickup trucks was due to leave here Friday, part of a fresh influx from the rural heartland, even as leaders in Bangkok appear to be plotting their exit. The mobilization may reflect divisions in the leadership over how far to push for further concessions.

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Ittichai Sriwongchai, a red-shirt organizer and local politician, says a decision was taken Wednesday to ratchet up the pressure.

"We need a knockout punch [to Abhisit]," he says. "We’ve had an upper cut, a hook. But people are saying, 'Why don't you go for a knockout?' "

Thousands of protesters are still camped out at a fortified commercial strip in Bangkok. Combat troops are positioned around the rally site but have made no attempt to retake it. A botched crackdown at another protest site on April 10 left 25 people dead and more than 800 injured in disputed circumstances. Military officials accuse pro-red gunmen of firing on their troops. Red leaders deny links to the gunmen and accuse the army of firing first.

Thaksin inspires northeast

That incident fueled red-shirt anger here in Khon Kaen, a city of 200,000 people in a drought-prone farm belt. The northeast was an essential cog in the political machine of Thaksin Shinawatra, the premier ousted by the military in 2006. The red shirts, known as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), grew out of his base, with help from leftists and other pro-democracy groups.

The next test for the movement may be converting its noisy support base into votes across the heartland. The northeast accounts for about one-third of parliamentary seats, crucial ballast for the opposition Pua Thai party.

To Bangkok’s privileged classes, the red shirts are ‘buffalos,’ a derogatory term, hired by Mr. Thaksin and fooled into fighting – and dying – for him to return under a Pua Thai government. In February, the Supreme Court seized $1.4 billion of Thaksin’s wealth and said he had abused his power during five years as prime minister.

Such talk is anathema in the red-shirt heartland. Sakda Orpong, a retired local governor and UDD supporter, says Thaksin was the first national leader to overrule urban elites and channel consistent support to the rural masses. The red shirts feel cheated by the military’s interference in politics, he says. Like other activists, he denies that protesters are paid to participate.

“The government doesn’t seem to recognize our sacrifice, that we’re asking for democracy. This is the best system that we can have,” he says.

Northeast officials friendly with red shirts

Abhisit’s road map unveiled Monday includes a pledge of media freedom, an independent investigation into protest violence, and an end to ‘double standards’ in judicial cases. He said the dissolution of parliament – the UDD’s key demand – would follow in September, provided the protesters stand down.

That time frame disappointed many here. Callers Thursday to a radio station, which broadcasts live coverage from the Bangkok rally interspersed with folk songs and announcements, said they weren’t ready to wait until November to vote out the government. The DJ agreed and told them to pack food and water and join the convoy to Bangkok. “I know you’re ready for this. You must be strong,” he urged.

Protesters who don’t make the journey south gather nightly in the city park, where red-shirt accessories are sold and children run underfoot. On Apr 10 the mood turned darker, as images of the Bangkok clashes were screened and some hotheads urged the burning of the provincial hall but were talked out of it.

Two weeks later, red shirts blocked a trainload of soldiers and buses carrying policemen bound for Bangkok. In both cases, say observers, the standoff was amicable. Indeed, the tip-offs on troop movements came from pro-red security officials, in a sign of divided loyalties in the mostly rural ranks.

“They didn’t want to go and get involved in more bloodshed. They were happy we stopped them,” says Mr. Sakda, the retired governor. The train was released after the military said the troops weren’t deploying to Bangkok.

Yellow shirts not welcome

As regional divisions harden, dissenting voices are hard to find in the red-shirt heartland. On Khon Kaen’s dusty streets, some shops display the yellow flags of a conservative protest group based in Bangkok and the south. Others fly red flags and insignia in the limp breeze.

On Apr 30, a prominent pro-government speaker flew to Khon Kaen to address the yellow shirts. But he had to turn around and fly back to Bangkok after hundreds of red shirts, tipped off by a radio announcement, rushed to the airport after his trip was publicized. Some stopped vehicles leaving the airport to search for him, says Prawat Bunnag, a yellow-shirt activist who had invited the speaker.

“The police did nothing. Every arriving passenger was checked, every car was checked,” he complains.

A few days later, the provincial police chief was removed over the security lapses. Analysts say his successor may struggle to keep control, particularly during a heated election campaign. More likely, they say, is that local officials will bend with the red-shirt wind, and wait to see who emerges on top.

“It is hard to control the anger of the people,” says Mr. Ittichai.

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