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Yellow Shirts Carry On in Thailand's Anti-Government Heartland

Noodle shop owner and Yellow Shirt supporter Prasert Tangrukmuang has cut-out cartoons covering his walls mocking former PM Thaksin Shinawatra in Udon Thani,Thailand
Noodle shop owner and Yellow Shirt supporter Prasert Tangrukmuang has cut-out cartoons covering his walls mocking former PM Thaksin Shinawatra in Udon Thani,Thailand

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Thailand's poor rural northeast is the heartland for the Red Shirt protesters who occupied central Bangkok for two months, until the government broke up their camp last week. But, it is also home to a minority of pro-government Yellow Shirts, who live uneasily alongside the reds.

Red Shirt supporters proudly call Udon Thani the red capital of Thailand. The city is a hub in the country's poor agricultural northeast, where support for exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is high.

It is also one of a number of cities in the north that erupted into protest after troops stormed the Red Shirt's Bangkok camp last week, part of a military crackdown that caused at least 50 deaths.

In Udon Thani, crowds attacked and burned government buildings, and the city, like many places in the country, has been under a state of emergency.

But Udon Thani is also home a small minority of Yellow Shirts, a rival movement whose street protests helped prompt the 2006 coup that removed Mr. Thaksin. They say that life here among the Reds is a mix between peaceful coexistence and daily mistrust.

The Yellow Shirts draw much of their support from middle-class and wealthy Thais, and they consider Mr. Thaksin to have been corrupt and authoritarian.

Rungsri Suprachaisakorn, who owns a car dealership, is one of the Yellow Shirt leaders in Udon Thani, says Mr. Thaksin was a corrupt leader who bought the support of local people with cheap health care and low-interest village loans. He says local people are good-hearted but gullible, and have been taken advantage of by the Red Shirts.

He says it is hard being a Yellow Shirt in a red town, where many in the security forces and government are sympathetic to the Reds. Two years ago, he said police stood by as Red Shirts attacked a Yellow-Shirt rally he had organized. He was left with broken thumbs and had to have 11 stitches in his head.

He says he has received death threats in the past but does not feel unsafe. Since he was attacked, the Yellows have brought in their own security guards from around the country to protect his rare rallies.

But in daily life, other Yellow Shirts say there is little tension.

At Prasert Tangrukmuang's noodle shop in downtown Udon Thani, the only thing red is the broth he serves up. Prasert is a Yellow Shirt and has cut-out cartoons covering his walls mocking Mr. Thaksin.

He says both Yellow- and Red-Shirt supporters come to his restaurant. The cartoons have caused few arguments, he says. Most customers just laugh.

Still, in everyday interactions, the polarization of Thai politics comes through.

Nattaya Patoomtip is a Yellow Shirt and an art teacher who travels from Udon Thani to teach in the countryside, where support for the Red Shirts is nearly universal, says she keeps discussions civil, but tries to educate village Red Shirts, who she says are ignorant.

She says Red Shirt supporters are buffalos and have no brains. She says what really upsets her is the disrespect she thinks they show for the king.

It is such language that highlights the political divisions in Thailand. Many in the country's urban elite and middle class routinely use such insults when referring to rural residents.

And Red Shirts say those insults are used as an excuse to deny rural voters and the poor a say in the nation's politics.

Danuch Tanterdtid, another Yellow Shirt leader, strikes a more conciliatory tone. He says relations with most of people here are still good, and he has decided not to use bodyguards, despite tensions following the Bangkok violence.

Udon Thani Yellow Shirt leader Danuch Tanterdtid, 25 May 2010
Udon Thani Yellow Shirt leader Danuch Tanterdtid, 25 May 2010

"They fight with the government, they do not fight with Yellow, so they do not do something bad to the Yellow. They burn down the city hall, they went to burn the governor's office, after that they tried to invade the Bangkok Bank."

He says he understands why the Red Shirts are so popular. Mr. Thaksin was the first leader to really listen to the northeast's rural poor, and so it is understandable they are loyal to him.

Still, he thinks the Red Shirts have thrown their lot in with a corrupt leadership.

The Red Shirts, however, say the current government is illegitimate, after the military ousted Mr. Thaksin and court rulings removed two elected pro-Thaksin governments. And in places like Udon Thani, they are angry about last week's military crackdown on their protest.

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