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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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“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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