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Red means stop, and anger, in vibrant Thai protest

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Ground zero for the six-week anti-government protest in Thailand’s capital is a stage set up in the middle of an intersection in the commercial district.

Anti-government "red shirt" protesters stand behind a barricade built with bamboo poles and tyres at an intersection close to the Silom Road financial district in Bangkok April 20, 2010. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash

A traffic light with a continuously blinking red arrow stands in the middle of a crowd, protesters politely listening in oppressive heat to fiery rhetoric from “red shirt” leaders demanding parliament be dissolved for immediate elections.

The light is not there to stop traffic.

Red stands for stopping an unelected government.

A crowd of some 15,000 sprawls out around the Rachaprasong intersection, many dozing under canopies, sharpened bamboo sticks beside them in case things turned ugly again.

Rachaprasong translates as “the King’s wish”.

But it’s doubtful the ailing, 82-year-old monarch is pleased with how polarised his kingdom has become, between “red shirts” who mostly represent the rural masses and “yellow shirts” who staged their own paralysing protests in Bangkok two years ago and now support Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government.

Kwanchai Sarakam, 57, a radio disc jockey from Udon Thani in the northeast, is one of those in charge of taking care of people at the rally site.

He has brought about 10,000 supporters to Bangkok, rotating them in and out every few days on a fleet of buses. Police are supposed to stop them at checkpoints in the capital, but they have been half-hearted at the task, red shirt leaders say.

The buses bring in supplies such as sticky rice and papaya, which are staples in the northeast.

It costs about 1-2 million baht ($31,000-$62,000) a day to take care of the crowd, organisers say, but they deny their de facto leader, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, is footing the bill. The telecoms billionaire, ousted in a 2006 coup, offers only moral support, they say.

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People laugh and shout at the speakers. Vendors sell food and drinks, red clothing, and hawk carnival games. Try your hand with a sling shot at knocking over a can with Abhisit’s face on it. The prize is a pillow inscribed with “dissolve parliament now”.

“Red stands for vibrancy,” says Kwanchai, wearing a flowery red shirt. “And it stands for stop.”

The food and clothing stalls and portable toilets stretch more than 2 km (1.2 miles) down Rachadamri Road to a formidable barricade of tyres, bamboo staves and chunks of concrete at the entrance to the business district of banks and offices.

Red shirts atop the barricade hurl abuse and set off firecrackers to unnerve soldiers, many armed with loaded M-16 assault rifles and shotguns, just a stone’s throw away.

Red also stands for anger and insurrection.

Kwanchai often refers to the top three protest leaders as the “three stooges”. He’s joking -- it’s the name the government has given them -- but he becomes serious when the topic turns to the possibility the army might try to disperse them.

The red shirts moved their main rally site to Rachaprasong after the army swooped on their previous site in the capital’s old quarter on the night of April 10. Guns and grenades were fired, killing at least 25 and wounding more than 800.

“The probability is greater now there could be a bloody crackdown,” Kwanchai said. “There could be a lot of lives lost. That’s why have deployed people to man six entries (to the protest site).”

The red shirts’ international spokesman, Sean Boonpracong, told Reuters elements of the army are with their movement. They are known as “watermelons” -- green on the outside but red in the middle -- and they include the shadowy, black-clad men with military weapons that were seen at the April 10th crackdown.

“They are a secret unit within the army that disagrees with what’s going on. Without them, the black clad men, there would have been a whole lot more deaths and injuries,” he said.

He also said the red-shirt movement at one point discussed whether it should have an armed wing. “It was shot down. We merely talked about it. It would be counter-productive to have a military wing. We’re not Sinn Fein.”

Nattawut Saikuar, one of the “three stooges” leading the movement, said the possibility of another crackdown is rising but he wants to call the army’s bluff.

“They can order a crackdown, but will it be carried out?” he told Reuters. “I’m sending a signal (by remaining at the site and fortifying it) that I want to see their cards,” Nattawut said.

“You cannot issue an order because the soldiers won’t listen,” he said, citing as an example a bungled attempt last Friday to arrest red shirt leaders.

Additional reporting by Nopporn Wong-anan; Editing by Paul Tait