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    Southeast Asia
     Jul 31, 2009
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Color-coded contest for Thailand's north
By Shawn Kelley

CHIANG MAI - When a government delegation led by Thai Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij landed in Chiang Mai earlier this month, it was met at the airport by some 200 anti-government protesters wearing red shirts, including one with a loaded gun. The would-be assailant circled the airport several times in his car before being stopped and arrested by police.

The protesters later hurled rocks and small homemade explosives into a crowd that inflicted minor injuries to around a dozen or so police officials near a local police station. The incident represented the latest show of force by Thailand's sometimes peaceful, sometimes volatile red-shirt movement, which draws inspiration from former prime minister and fugitive from Thai justice Thaksin Shinawatra.

The exiled former leader's popularity continues to run strong in


northern and northeastern regions due to the pro-poor policies he implemented and marketed through state media during his six-year tenure. His populist message has had special resonance in Chiang Mai, where he was born and from where his family hails.

How far Thaksin's red-garbed protest movement, known broadly as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), is willing to go to press its demands for new snap elections, the restoration of the 1997 constitution and broadly an end to a political order they say is dominated by the military and royalist elite will be key to stability in the months and perhaps years ahead.

The UDD last ramped up their protests in April, when Thaksin called radically for a "people's revolution" against the government and a broad "aristocracy", including apparently the members of the royal advisory Privy Council that UDD leaders pilloried during their on-stage protests.

Thaksin's rally call from exile galvanized a crowd of tens of thousands in early and mid-April and later sparked scenes of chaos and violence on the streets of Bangkok that were eventually put down by the military. More recently, his supporters held a remote birthday party for their exiled leader, to which the now 60-year-old called in by satellite link and sang a song. The UDD is now leading a controversial petition drive, calling for a royal pardon for Thaksin.

Prime Minster Abhisit Vejajiva and his Democrat Party-led coalition government have presided over a three-month period of relative political calm, notwithstanding the occasional red-shirt rally. His party plans to ramp up fiscal spending and made-for-media roadshows to market government projects before calling new general elections, expected some time in 2010.

The northern region, which accounts for some 75 MP seats out of 480 total, will be pivotal to whether the Democrats beat out the Thaksin-aligned Peua Thai Party, which configured as the now banned People's Power Party won the 2007 elections. But as Abhisit and his party push to win support in the northern provinces, where the Democrats previously had substantial influence before Thaksin's spectacular rise in 2001, the contest for hearts and minds in the region will be especially pitched.

Finance Minister Korn has said the north will receive the greatest share of the US$44 billion the government recently earmarked for fiscal stimulus, money that they clearly hope will achieve electoral results. But the reds could yet stir enough instability and civil disobedience to render that electoral strategy ineffective.

Thailand's conflict has variously been portrayed as a struggle between rich and poor, urban and rural, feudalists and democrats, with the red shirts claiming to represent the latter in the characterizations. But the country is more clearly divided on regional lines, with the wealthier Bangkok and southern region favoring the Democrat Party, and the poorer but more populous north and northeastern regions leaning strongly towards Thaksin.

The broad brushstroke categorizations, however, do not account for the many exceptions, particularly in the northern city of Chiang Mai where there are plenty of rich and poor on both sides of the political divide. Nor do they account for the many northerners who would rather steer clear of taking political sides, either out of fear, lack of interest or distrust of the competing red and yellow shirt protest leaders.

Yet even those who claim neutrality in the north often share the red shirts' frustration with the military's political resurgence and cynicism about an electoral process in which their elected representatives are frequently deposed through perceived undemocratic means, including through court decisions they believe are politically biased.

Rowdy reds
That sentiment has been mobilized in recent red shirt protests. When the April protests reached their chaotic height in Bangkok, hundreds of red-shirted protestors across the north blocked major highways and stormed the offices of state-run television stations to protest the government's perceived biased reporting on the events and the forced closure of the Thaksin-aligned D-Station satellite TV network.

Yet despite that strategic response, northern Thailand's red shirt groups are varied and only loosely aligned with one another. Many have adopted martial symbols, taking on names like Phayao Army, the 24 June Democracy of Chiang Rai, named to commemorate the date of the fall of the absolute monarchy in 1932, and the Lanna People's Council, to emphasize northern regional identity.

Some groups take their cues directly from the Bangkok-based UDD, while others are more independent and in certain instances have turned their backs on Thaksin and the UDD entirely. A number have formed along neighborhood lines, led by people who have broken away from the main red shirt leaders because of personal differences. Some broke ranks because they felt unfairly compensated for their efforts in mobilizing local support for red shirt causes.

The most active and controversial of the northern red groups, led by hardcore Thaksin loyalists who first came out three years ago to oppose his military ouster, calls itself Rak Chiang Mai 51. But the group's sometimes violent protest activities have belied to some degree the broad red shirt movement's rally cry for "real democracy".

Months before their attempt to thwart the finance minister's visit to Chiang Mai, in November the group instigated a mob of a few hundred people, many armed with guns, knives and homemade weapons, to blockade the entrance to the home and office of Terdsak Jiamkitwattana, a radio journalist and former Thaksin supporter who switched political sides after the 2006 coup.

The shut-in lasted several hours and gunshots were reportedly fired at Terdsak's Radio Vihok news station. As Terdsak's 60-year-old father, Setha, himself a former news reporter, attempted to drive through the cordon, he was dragged out of his automobile by protestors and savagely killed after being beaten, stabbed and shot. Fearing another round of attacks by red shirts, Terdsak delayed the funeral for several weeks.

Other northern red shirt groups have deployed less brutal but still violent tactics. During a by-election campaign held in January, former Democrat prime minister Chuan Leekpai was pelted with eggs and water bottles while canvassing for a local candidate in northern Lampang province. His van was later assaulted with eggs and other objects as he traveled to neighboring Lamphun.

A few years earlier, in the lead-up to the April 2006 elections which the Democrat Party boycotted and Thaksin's then Thai Rak Thai party statistically won, Chuan was struck by a chair thrown by a Thaksin supporter and other top Democrat party members were run off stage at an event in Chiang Mai city held to explain their withdrawal from the race.

The red shirts' message doesn't resonate across all northern constituencies. In February this year, aggrieved corn farmers who were camped in front of city hall requesting government assistance clashed briefly with Rak Chiang Mai 51 after rejecting overtures to join their more politically oriented demonstration. Several days later, a few dozen red shirts confronted organizers of a gay awareness parade in Chiang Mai city, declaring it a violation of the region's traditional values, and forced its cancellation moments before the procession was set to begin.

There have also been signs of dissension among the northern red shirt ranks. After disrupting the gay pride parade, at Chiang Mai city's railway station a minor altercation broke out between Rak Chiang Mai 51 members and two other red shirt groups that had broke away after falling out with key Rak Chiang Mai 51 leaders.

In the aftermath of the April protests, police issued arrest warrants for about a dozen or so red shirt leaders in the north and raided a handful of their aligned community radio stations for inciting the unrest. Lampang police reportedly seized nineteen .22 caliber pistols, 950 rounds of ammunition and computers from the Lanna People's Community Radio station.

The station was run by Natchai Insai, leader of the Chumchon Hak Lampang 51 (Lampang Loving People 51) and head of the pro-Thaksin Lampang Province Silver Plaque special tutoring school. Authorities later allowed the radio stations to resume broadcasting under the condition that they refrain from inciting supporters to disturb public order.

The crackdowns prompted former culture minister Worawat Ua-Apinyakul, a Peua Thai MP and prominent red-shirt organizer in the northern province of Phrae, to declare his intention to take the group's anti-government struggle underground, ominously warning that the north could turn more violent than the country's deep south, where a Muslim insurgency has claimed thousands of lives since re-igniting in 2004.

A Western intelligence official based in Chiang Mai says red shirt threats to wage a "people's war" or underground guerilla campaign against the government reflect the movement's feeling "cornered and frustrated" and slipping into "crash mode". Worawat's call echoed Bangkok-based UDD leader Jakrapob Penkair, who after the April military crackdown on the UDD's protest told international media of his intention to launch an underground armed struggle against the government. Jakrapob is currently in exile and so far there are no indications the mainstream red shirt movement supports his call to arms.

Kanyapak Maneejak, a popular red shirt-affiliated radio host in Chiang Mai better known as DJ Aom, dismisses the threats of armed struggle as so much posturing. She claims that many red shirt leaders in the north ramp up the rhetoric in hopes of gaining greater recognition and potential financial support from Thaksin.

DJ Aom, a frontline leader and regular radio presenter for Rak Chiang Mai 51, says she spent her childhood living at the Shinawatra family compound in nearby Sankhampaeng district, where her grandmother still lives. The offspring of the Shinawatra 

Continued 1 2  

Thai government's great gambit
(Jul 27, '09)

My friend is my enemy in Thailand (May 7, '09)

Hand-to-hand fights in the streets
(Apr 15, '09)

Seeing red in Thailand (Apr 4, '09)

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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET,July 29, 2009)

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