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Thailand's escalating colour-coded crisis

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai “yellow shirt” protesters have threatened to return to the streets if the government fails to tackle a five-week rally by rival “red shirt” demonstrators, putting the country on a collision course for more violence.

Anti-government "red shirt" protesters sit under a canopy in the main shopping district in Bangkok April 19, 2010. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash

The movements are largely focused on former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, despised by the yellows and loved by many of the reds, who was ousted in a 2006 coup by the men in green, Thailand’s powerful military, which has its own, potentially dangerous, internal rifts to deal with.


The People’s Alliance for Democracy is a traditional elite, representing royalists, businessmen and an urban middle class, opposed to Thaksin and his populist movement. They took to the streets in 2005 to oust the twice-elected Thaksin, alleging massive corruption and disloyalty to King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Yellow is the colour associated with the 82-year-old monarch.

The well-funded “yellow shirts” protests led to a 2006 bloodless coup. When a pro-Thaksin party was elected in army-organised polls, they blockaded government buildings for 193 days in 2008 and helped bring down two prime ministers.

Their biggest victory came when they took over Bangkok’s airports for eight days in late 2008, a siege that ended with a judicial dissolution of the pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party, and paved the way for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to take power. They have stayed on the sidelines since then, but that could change now that they have threatened their “biggest ever” rally.


They say they represent the rural poor and urban working class who resent interference in politics by powerful unelected elites -- the judiciary, big business and top military generals.

The “red shirts” say Abhisit’s government came to power in an army-brokered deal in parliament in December 2008 and, therefore, is illegitimate. Their protests show no signs of waning.

Despite being dismissed as rabble-rousers financed by the wealthy Thaksin, their protests have been largely peaceful and have drawn crowds of up to 150,000 people, at first occupying Bangkok’s historic heart before moving to a luxury hotel and shopping district.

In the past year, they have shut down a summit of Asian leaders, closed off the government’s headquarters and faced off twice with the military in violent clashes.

Various explanations have been given for why they wear red shirts -- red as in “stop” to shut down the yellow-shirts, red is the colour of sacrifice, and because red stands for the nation in the tricloured Thai flag.


Rallies have been staged in recent weeks to oppose the “red shirts”, support the government, or urge it to restore order. Non-political Thais, wearing white, have marched for peace.

Others have gathered wearing pink, a favourite colour of the king, to urge the “red shirts” to go home. Many believe they are merely “yellow shirts” in disguise.


Having staged 18 coups or attempted power grabs in 77 years, the military is never far removed from politics, and most analysts believe it has a big role in the current government.

However, military insiders and security analysts say the army is split along similar red-yellow faultlines as society and the current round of protests has highlighted these divisions.

Top commanders are mostly royalists with a “yellow” leaning, but many in the rank-and-file hail from impoverished parts of Thailand, and are believed to sympathise with the “red shirts”. They have been dubbed “watermelons” -- green on the outside, with a red core. Some off-duty soldiers have even attended rallies.

Pro-Thaksin generals were transferred to inactive posts or low level command positions when the former telecoms tycoon was toppled. Dozens have retired and joined the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai party, but still retain some influence in the military.

Military sources say paramilitaries or even serving troops have stood with the “red shirts” and even faced off against fellow soldiers in a bid to create anarchy and bring Thaksin -- and his favourite generals -- back to power.


Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s reliance on the military for security operations probably stems from distrust and perceived lack of cooperation from the police.

Riot police have put up little resistance during “red shirt” rallies and many senior commanders are known to be linked to Thaksin, a former policeman himself. Thais have often called them “tomatoes” -- red throughout.

The police were relieved of responsibility to arrest “red shirt” leaders on Friday after a bungled raid at a hotel where some were staying. The embarrassing episode ended when some leaders simply walked away when protesters overwhelmed police commandos. One scaled down from his hotel room on an electrical cable, taking with him two police generals as hostage.


Mysterious, black-clad gunmen appeared among protesters in the April 10 clashes that killed 25 and injured more than 800. The government has branded them “terrorists”.

There is broad speculation the shadowy assailants were paramilitary rangers or rogue soldiers working for Thaksin and his military cronies. Some hawkish generals have previously claimed they have set up a “people’s army” but deny any involvement in last week’s unrest, during which a former bodyguard of the Queen was killed in what some in the media have called an apparent assassination.

Editing by Bill Tarrant