Thailand's red-shirt heartland hides its strength

Thailand's red-shirt heartland hides its strength
Thai pro-government "Red Shirts" wave national flag as they gather at Rajamangala stadium in Bangkok

HUA KHUA, Thailand - Squatting on flat feet, their faces drawn with exhaustion from harvesting rice, Chantee Sanwang and Nang Laor still had the energy to tussle over who loathes Thailand's anti-government protesters more.

"I really hate them," said Chantee, a rail-thin 65 year-old grandmother with teeth stained red by betel nut.

Nang, also 65, refused to be outdone. "I want them dead,"she countered, sending both into wheezy hysterics.

As thousands of largely middle-class Thais flood Bangkok streets in protests aimed at overthrowing the government of the populist Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, one volatile factor has been largely absent from the streets: the red-shirted protesters who helped bring her to power.

But in the background, the red shirts remain a potent force, despite being hobbled by a bitterly divided leadership and the atrophy that comes with more than two years of their side being in power.

In interviews with Reuters, red-shirt leaders and members said they are avoiding direct confrontation with anti-government protesters, which would likely provoke bloodshed. But they are marshalling their forces, just in case.

Like the province it sits in, Udon Thani, the village of Hua Khua is part of the rural north and northeastern heartland that is the support base of Yingluck's Puea Thai Party and her self-exiled brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed as prime minister in a 2006 military coup.

Hua Khua is one thousands of communities that movement leaders call "Red Shirt Villages". These days, this means little more than one tattered office bearing Thaksin's image. But support here for the government runs high.

Love for Thaksin stems from pro-poor policies during his time in power, including easy credit and near-free healthcare.

More recently, his sister's government has maintained support with a rice subsidy scheme, which has been derided by the opposition.

The economy in the northeast grew 40 per cent between 2007 and 2011, nearly twice the national average.

There are some signs support may have slipped a little. A survey by the Isaan Poll Project, run out of the city of Khon Kaen, found Puea Thai's support in the northeast dropped from 80 per cent after her 2011 election to about 64 per cent in the third quarter of this year.

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