Thailand's "red shirts" gear up for a fight

Thailand's "red shirts" gear up for a fight
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra Yingluck.

KHON KAEN/BANGKOK - The clock is ticking for Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who faces impeachment within weeks, but her supporters are hatching plans to thwart any move to dismiss her, with some leaders assembling what amount to militias.

Yingluck has until later on Monday to defend herself before the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) against charges of dereliction of duty over a ruinously expensive rice-buying scheme.

If the commission recommends Yingluck's impeachment, and the Senate then seeks to remove her, it could be a tipping point for the pro-government "red shirts", who have mostly stayed out of the fray since anti-government protests first flared in November. "We'll act when our democratically elected prime minister is kicked out by the elite," Suporn Attawong, a red shirt leader known by followers as "Rambo Isarn", told Reuters in Bangkok.

Leaders of the red shirt movement, formally called the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), say they are mustering recruits to be sent for military-style training in order to protect their own protesters if they go to the barricades.

Thailand's eight-year political crisis broadly pits the Bangkok elite and middle classes against the mostly rural supporters of Yingluck and her influential brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted as premier by the military in 2006.

The red shirts have upped the ante in recent days, sealing off entrances to the national anti-corruption agency. Grenades were thrown at the offices of the agency one night late last week, but no one was injured.

There are fears that any march on Bangkok could end in a bloodbath similar to 2010 when red shirts camped out for weeks in the capital, demanding an early general election. That unrest ended with a military crackdown and at least 90 people died during the events, mostly Thaksin supporters.

Suporn says the UDD leadership will announce a plan of action on April 3. They tentatively expect to hold a rally on April 5, possibly in Bangkok, and to block a major highway connecting central Thailand to the northeast. "If a major rally is held in Bangkok we will quickly mobilize our northeastern volunteers to act as super guards for red shirt protesters in the capital," said Suporn.

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