(For an interview with UDD leaders click on [ID:nBKK507010])
By Martin Petty
BANGKOK, Sept 3 (Reuters) - "Red shirt" supporters of fugitive former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra are planning more big rallies to push for elections, raising fears of an intensification of Thailand’s four-year political crisis.
The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) has emerged as a formidable extra-parliamentary force, capable of mobilising tens of thousands of people for lengthy demonstrations.
WHO ARE THE RED SHIRTS?
The UDD is a pro-Thaksin protest movement whose members are mostly rural people from the fugitive billionaire’s strongholds in the north and northeast.
Many among Thailand’s rural poor remain loyal to Thaksin because of his populist policies and believe he is the only Thai leader that has sought to address their needs, providing soft loans, support for farmers, cheap healthcare and village funds.
They agree with his claim that his removal in a coup and his subsequent graft convictions were politically motivated by the military, urban elites and royalists — the traditional power-holders in Thailand — to neutralise his political threat.
WHY ARE THE "RED SHIRTS" PROTESTING AND WHAT DO THEY WANT?
The UDD says the government is illegitimate because it was not elected by the people. It wants Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve parliament and hold new polls, which they are confident the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai Party would win.
(For a Q+A on Thaksin’s political strategy click [ID:nBKK178169]).
The "red shirts" say their campaign is a fight for democracy. Most, but not all, are staunch supporters of Thaksin and are pushing for his return. They submitted a petition with 3.5 million signatures last month, asking revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej to pardon him.
The UDD believes the 2006 coup, the dissolution of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai and the People Power Party he backed, and his graft conviction all resulted from intervention by his powerful opponents, alongside heavy pressure from the influential extra-parliamentary "yellow shirts" movement.
Along with the Puea Thai Party, the UDD wants an amnesty for all politicians banned since the 2006 coup, arguing that the rulings were made by judges appointed by a military government that used unconstitutional means to seize power. (For possible scenarios in Thai politics click on [ID:nBKK13774])
HOW FAR ARE THEY WILLING TO GO?
Quite far, if what happened in April is anything to go by.
In the space of only a few days, "red shirts" managed to blockade Abhisit’s office, shut down key intersections in Bangkok and force the cancellation of a summit of Asian leaders in a town 150 km (93 miles) away.
Hundreds of "red shirts" then battled for 14 hours with troops on the streets of Bangkok, resulting in Thailand’s worst violence in 17 years. They hurled petrol bombs, burned tyres, hijacked two petrol tankers and stole more than 30 buses, setting them ablaze then driving some of them at troops.
HOW ARE THE RED SHIRTS RECEIVED?
Critics have accused the UDD of seeking to divide the country and instigate violence to trigger a crackdown or even a coup, as happened several times during crises in the 1970s. But analysts say military intervention would not help their campaign.
Businesses complain the protests are damaging the country’s reputation, scaring off investors and tourists, contributing to unemployment and stifling economic recovery. (For an analysis on the impact of the crisis on the economy click on [ID:nBKK495882])
Critics and some anti-Thaksin columnists seem to dismiss UDD followers as gullible yokels paid to attend rallies. They say leaders have been accused of siphoning off Thaksin’s money. Some say they are pursuing a communist, anti-monarchy agenda.
WHO ARE THE LEADERS AND IS THERE A SPLIT?
Few doubt Thaksin is the UDD’s real leader and its main financial backer, but in Thailand the movement is led by six or seven people around the country. They say Thaksin is not in charge and is simply a supporter and a popular speaker.
A split has emerged in recent weeks and the Puea Thai Party is reportedly concerned that squabbling could undermine not just the UDD but the entire pro-Thaksin movement. Some fear unhappy politicians will defect to other parties.
Former cabinet minister Jakrapob Penkhair, whose whereabouts are unknown, is at odds with other core leaders. Thaksin may also want to distance himself from his former aide because of accusations Jakrapob insulted the monarchy during a speech.
Jakrapob sees the "red shirt" movement more as a class struggle for the rural poor, with communist undertones, and wrote an article last week dismissing Thaksin’s clemency plea as an impossible dream. (Editing by Alan Raybould and Robert Birsel)