News / Asia

Rural Anger Fuels Thailand's Red Shirts

Farm workers in a field near the city of Udon Thani in Thailand's impoverished northeast, 14 May 2010
Farm workers in a field near the city of Udon Thani in Thailand's impoverished northeast, 14 May 2010

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Many of the red shirt protesters who have been battling the army for the past few days on the streets of Bangkok come from Thailand's poor rural hinterland.

The sandy dirt and dried-out fields of Thailand's northeast look little like the country's tourist brochures. The region, known as Isaan, is the country's poorest. It is also the stronghold of the red-shirt movement, which has brought downtown Bangkok to a halt in two months of protests that have seen repeatedly turned violent.

Many here are enthusiastic supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup. They are angry at his ouster and court cases that removed an elected Thaksin-allied government in 2008. Mr. Thaksin is a chief backer of the red shirts.

Lamoon Woratnam is a rice farmer in the village of Kumbong. He says, like most farmers here, he saw his livelihood improve under Mr. Thaksin's policies aimed at Thailand's poor.

Those policies included cheap healthcare and a low-interest village loan program that has allowed him to buy fertilizer and hire workers, increasing his income.

He says Mr. Thaksin was the first prime minister to listen to the poor here. He says the 2006 coup went against the democratic will of the people and that the current government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is afraid to even come to the northeast.

When Mr. Abhisit attempted to visit the nearby town of Nong Khai in March, angry red shirts forced him to flee by helicopter.

Red-shirt crowds in several provinces have also in recent weeks blocked roads and rail lines believed to be carrying troops and supplies to Bangkok.

Incomes in Isaan fall well below the national average and are miniscule in comparison to Bangkok, where they are protesting.

The local economy is ruled by agriculture, but the soil is infertile and much of the northeast is in the grip of a drought. For generations poor northeasterners have migrated to richer parts of Thailand or abroad to make a living in menial jobs from driving taxis to dancing in sleazy go-go bars.

Red shirt movement

But everywhere there are signs of the prosperity that arrived under Mr. Thaksin. Some farms have replaced buffalos with tractors and many houses boast new extensions and satellite dishes. Many of the pickup trucks that carry protesters to Bangkok were bought thanks to a surge in rural credit.

Jakapong Saengkum
Jakapong Saengkum

One person helping to fill those pickups is Jakapong Saengkum, a deejay on We Love Udon, a radio station in nearby Udon Thani city. The station was set up by local red shirt leader.

Jakapong says the red shirts have registered 500,000 members in Udon Thani province. His radio station keeps members informed of developments in Bangkok and runs fundraising drives to keep the city protest camp supplied. In between, he plays looktung, Thai country music popular in the region.

He says the red shirt movement has spread from the countryside into the city. He says many city officials in Udon Thani, and most police, support the red shirts.

He says every time the government tries to shut down the station, they get tip offs from the police force, allowing them to rally supporters.

Liam Moonguaklang is a former rural resident back on a visit from the United States, where she runs a Thai restaurant. She says red shirt support is so strong because Mr. Thaksin taught country people to stand up for themselves.

She points to village houses at both end of the road, where cooperative loans have helped bring the beginnings of prosperity.

"Before we not that smart. Now we know what going on, how much they cheat us, how much they want us to be slave for them," she said.

Backers of the current government argue that Mr. Thaksin had to be removed because of corruption, but that argument gets little support here.

Local red shirt supporters are also not swayed by the fact that Mr. Abhisit's government has kept many of the policies that made Thaksin popular.

In Isaan's dry countryside, many say they are angry simply because they are no longer being listened to.

And that anger is translating into street violence in Bangkok. Since the protests began two months ago, more than 30 people have died - protesters, security personnel and bystanders, and more than 1,000 injured. Since Thursday night, there have been sporadic street battles around the red-shirt camp in the middle of an upscale commercial, hotel and residential district in Bangkok.

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