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.
Khon Kaen, Thailand
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.