UDON THANI, Thailand (Reuters) - Beyond the bright lights of a capital besieged by defiant protesters, Thailand’s embattled government has another problem on its hands.
A stubborn “red shirt” anti-government movement holding Bangkok hostage has its roots here in the country’s impoverished northeast, where Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is widely reviled.
“This is the capital city of the red shirts,” said Wicharn Phanor, a taxi driver in Udon Thani, a largely agriculture-dependant province where locals speak a dialect better understood in nearby Laos than faraway Bangkok.
“Almost everyone here is a red shirt,” he said proudly.
The town that once supported a nearby air base where the U.S. military operated during the Vietnam war, and whose lively bars and hotels are a reminder of that time, has 400,000 registered members of the red shirt movement.
Tens of thousands of protesters demanding elections have held mass rallies regularly here and took over city hall on April 10 for two days after what they saw as the army’s violent suppression of fellow red shirts in the capital.
The uprising seems to be spreading.
Red shirts here and in at least six other provinces have blocked roads to stop convoys of armed troops and police from traveling to Bangkok, fearing an imminent crackdown on protesters occupying a Bangkok shopping district for 27 days.
In many of the provinces, the police and army are outnumbered and seem powerless -- and apparently reluctant -- to tackle them.
“We find it’s much better to try to negotiate,” said a local police official, who requested anonymity.
Many red shirts are supporters of twice-elected former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, an exiled, graft-convicted tycoon reviled by Bangkok’s powerful establishment elites.
His populist programs, from cheap loans to providing healthcare at the price of a bowl of noodles, have won him the loyalty of millions of farmers angered by his overthrow in a 2006 military coup.
At the heart of his movement are popular community radio stations run by the rural red shirts and used to mobilize thousands of supporters at the drop of a hat, often in response to commands from their leaders in Bangkok.
“Give me just 20 minutes and I can rally at least 1,000 people,” boasts Jakapong Saengkam, a deejay who helps run the “People who love Udon” station and the local red shirt chapter.
The police have confiscated equipment and tried to shut the station down several times, but like his counterparts in other pro-Thaksin strongholds, Jakapong is still on the air.
“We have a lot of power in this city,” he said. “We get tip-offs from local people, the police and the army all the time -- we know exactly what’s going on.”
The urbane, Oxford-educated Abhisit found out how deeply they despise him during a visit to neighboring Nong Khai in March, when hundreds of red shirts hounded him, hurling abuse and prompting his early retreat by helicopter.
Like other provinces often dismissed by Bangkok’s middle classes as far-flung outposts of the unsophisticated masses, the community radio forms the backbone of a complex network that raises funds to sustain an increasingly resilient movement.
Chayakorn Sornjanada, a local businesswoman, is one of scores of district and village “presidents,” tasked with mobilizing local people and collecting donations in the form of cash or huge sacks of rice to help feed the Bangkok rally.
“Everyone is ready to help at any time. Their radios are on, even while they sleep. My phone never stops ringing,” Chayakorn said, showing off a red cellphone that plays a quirky welcome message showing a smiling Thaksin punching the air, accompanied by an audible “hello” in his famous gruff voice.
The provincial blockades, which included the halting of a train carrying troops and military vehicles in Khon Kaen, highlight mounting problems for the army-backed Abhisit, who last week rejected an offer of negotiations to end a bloody standoff that has so far killed 27 people and wounded almost 1,000.
“I don’t think Abhisit realizes the depth of the red shirt movement -- he’s really underestimated them,” said David Streckfuss, an American scholar based in Khon Kaen.
“It makes you wonder who’s really in control here.”
Editing by Bill Tarrant and Sanjeev Miglani