Protesters criticised a ruling by the constitutional court earlier in the day that the February 2 polls could legally be postponed, in the face of an election boycott by anti-government demonstrators and their occupation of parts of Bangkok, which has lasted nearly a fortnight.
The Chiang Rai red shirts’ anger is a taster of a conflict likely in southeast Asia’s second-largest economy should the election be derailed or the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, prime minister, be ousted by the courts or the military.
“We have been fighting for democracy for many years,” said Chirachot Phumisitpong, deputy leader of one of Chiang Rai’s main red-shirt groups. “If the other side [stages] a revolution and the troops come out, we will fight.”
Many Thais are bracing themselves for a tumultuous week as a trial of strength that began on the streets of Bangkok more than two months ago builds to an election the government is determined to hold and the opposition “yellow shirts” movement, led by Suthep Thaugsuban, is desperate to stop.
The battle is perhaps the most dangerous explosion yet of a long-running power struggle between supporters and opponents of Ms Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister whose ousting in a 2006 military coup triggered the creation of the red-shirt movement.
Thawatchai Thongnak, a redshirt artist, is one of many people – on both sides and none – who fear for the future of Thailand. “We will have to have a civil war,” he said gloomily.
Government loyalists gathered as Chiang Rai’s early evening traffic thundered past their camp, which is carved out from the highway by a corral of traffic cones implanted with red flags billowing in the winter breeze. If that was one riposte to the occupation of a string of Bangkok highways by opposition demonstrators, then the large poster declaring “We don’t want the Suthep regime” – echoing opposition denunciations of “the Thaksin regime” – was another.
Demonstrators lit candles as a speaker on the makeshift stage led them in a chant of “Election!” and denounced the opposition’s plan to suspend parliamentary rule and install an appointed council of undefined “good people” instead.
“We want elections on February 2,” he called out, as protesters planted their candles in a line on the tarmac. “We don’t want Suthep’s cronies.”
These roadside red shirts are part of a network of loyalist groups across the country who are growing increasingly angry after holding back from confrontation as part of a government effort to avoid provoking violence and a possible military coup.
Chiang Rai, a tourist centre that is a gateway to the “golden triangle” where the Thai, Myanmar and Laos borders meet, is firmly in the government’s mainly rural northern heartland – and is just two hours down the road from Chiang Mai, ancestral home of Mr Thaksin and Ms Yingluck. Pro-Thaksin parties have won every Thai election since 2001, thanks to the appeal in the north in particular of policies such as cheap healthcare and rice farming subsidies.
Both reds and yellows say they use only peaceful protest but some members of both have also been involved violence. This week, Kwanchai Praipana, a red-shirt leader in the north-eastern town of Udon Thani, was shot and wounded in an apparent assassination attempt.
If that has spooked fellow reds, so have the actions of some supposedly independent state institutions they see as biased against them. The Chiang Rai reds attacked Friday’s constitutional court ruling that it was possible to postpone the February 2 poll if the government and the country’s election commission agreed to do so. The election commission has called for the vote to be delayed until May but Ms Yingluck said she would press ahead with the original date after opposition leaders rebuffed her offer of talks on a postponement.
Red shirts around the country are due to hold rallies on January 29, one of several potential flashpoints during a week that will be a big test of both sides’ credibility, relative strength – and restraint.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” said Amnaj Rattanasuwan, a Chiang Rai red-shirt accountant. “We really want to fight. Many people feel that way.” – ByMichael Peel in Chiang Rai
Michael Peel is a British journalist. He has written for various publications including Granta, New Republic, New Statesman and London Review of Books. He is currently middle east correspondent of the Financial Times.