KHON KAEN – As election day approaches in Thailand, supporters of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra vow to take to the barricades in her defence.
Clad in a red beret, combat jacket and sunglasses, Ko Tee looks like a cliché of a 1970’s revolutionary as he gathers with the angry activists under his command.
But along with thousands of “red-shirts”, he is not out to topple any government – quite the opposite, in fact. Ko Tee is preparing to man the barricades to save Thailand’s prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, from the anti-government protesters who have brought parts of Bangkok to a standstill as they try to overthrow her and the ruling Pheu Thai party.
With five days to go to the general election called by Ms Yingluck in an attempt to draw the poison from the protests, her most loyal supporters are preparing for the worst.
“This is already a war, but so far it is an unarmed war,” said Ko Tee. “If there is a coup, or the election doesn’t happen, then it definitely becomes an armed war.”
If anyone doubted the abyss into which Thailand could be heading, Ko Tee – who has been accused of orchestrating grenade attacks on anti-government marches in the thai capital – is the living proof.
“I want there to be lots of violence to put an end to all this,” he said. “I’m bored by speeches. It’s time to clean the country, to get rid of the elite, all of them.”
Nine people have already died and hundreds been injured in small-scale clashes between the red shirts and their opponents since the current phase of anti-government demonstrations commenced in November.
Now, there are increasing signs that those attacks are just the prelude to a conflict that could be far more deadly than the battles between red shirts and the military in Bangkok in 2010 that killed 90 people.
With the opposition Democrat Party boycotting the Feb 2 poll – in the knowledge that it will almost certainly lose it by a large margin – and the constitution court ruling the election can be legally postponed, Thailand is bitterly split along political and class lines that threaten to overwhelm its fragile democracy.
Those divisions pit the rural poor of the north and northeast of the country, who overwhelmingly support Pheu Thai, against the metropolitan middle class, the traditional ruling class and the Democrat Party’s supporters in their stronghold of southern Thailand.
The red shirts regard Ms Yingluck as the head of a democratically-elected government whose populist policies have done more to benefit them than any previous administration.
But for the anti-government protesters, Ms Yingluck is merely the puppet of her brother – the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown by a military coup in 2006 and fled into exile two years later to avoid trial on corruption charges.
Mr Thaksin was the first Thai leader to grasp the potential for winning support from the millions who still live in poverty in the Thai countryside, by providing them with subsidised healthcare and student loans.
His critics accuse him of buying the votes of the poor and using his power to line the pockets of his family and associates – and also of disloyalty to Thailand’s revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
As the anti-Thaksin forces – known as the yellow shirts – have maintained their presence on the streets, a siege mentality has taken hold among the various red-shirt organisations, with almost all convinced that Ms Yingluck faces the same fate as her brother.
Thailand has endured 18 coups or attempted coups since the end of absolute rule by the monarchy in 1932, and many Thais believe the protest leaders want the military to step in once again to resolve the present crisis.
“I think there will be a coup. It’s the only way the elite can maintain their power,” said Sabina Cha, a red shirt leader in Khon Kaen province in northeast Thailand, a heartland of the group.
Any such intervention would prompt a mass uprising of the red-shirts.
“If there is a coup, of course I’ll go to Bangkok and fight,” said Phutthiphong Khamhaengphon, the head of security for Khon Kaen’s red shirts. “Millions of us will go. We’ll fight in many different ways. If necessary, it will be like the Vietcong fighting the Americans in Vietnam: a guerrilla war.”
And Ms Yingluck’s support runs deep in the northeast, where almost a third of Thailand’s 67 million people live and Pheu Thai hold almost every parliamentary seat.
In the rice-farming villages that make up most of the region, Mr Thaksin remains a hero. “Before Thaksin, the people in the countryside were forgotten,” said Tongkoon Tongmee, a 55-year-old farmer in western Khon Kaen.
By David Eimer, Khon Kaen