Sat, Mar 20, 2010
Opposition "red shirts" try to win over Thai capital

By Martin Petty

BANGKOK: Thousands of opposition activists prepared to fan out across Thailand's capital on Saturday in a bid to win the hearts of Bangkok's middle classes and recruit them for their anti-government campaign.

The red-shirted supporters of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra were mobilizing in convoys of motorcycles and pickup trucks to hand out leaflets and draw in Bangkok residents for their push for new elections.

The mass rally, which drew up to 150,000 people last Sunday, has so far been peaceful, boosting investor sentiment and helping to lift Thai stocks to a 20-month high.

Foreign investors have in the last month pumped 35.5 billion baht ($1.09 billion) into the bourse, one of Asia's cheapest, much of that based on confidence that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government will ride out the storm.

Although fatigue and the sizzling Bangkok sun has persuaded many protesters to return to their rural provinces, tens of thousands have remained in the capital for a rally leaders said would continue for at least another two weeks.

"We are asking Bangkok people to join our non-violent movement if they hate double standards and hypocrisy," Weng Tojirakarn, a protest leader, told the crowd on Friday.

The "red shirts" say big businessmen, royal advisers, army generals and court judges have colluded to undermine elected governments, and want people in the city of 15 million to join their rally and help return power to the people.

They say the Oxford-educated Abhisit, who enjoys the backing of an influential establishment elite and the politically potent military, is illegitimate and should step down.

The "red shirts" believe that by broadening their support base, the mostly grassroots movement stands a better chance of prolonging the rally and bringing down the government.

Thaksin Stigma

Abhisit has been blocked from his office and parliament and has taken refuge at a military base. He insists the country is too divided to face a general election right now.

Analysts said the "red shirts" had earned many sympathizers in six days of non-violent rallies but face an uphill struggle to bring the politically powerful middle classes fully on board.

Many in the capital remain staunchly opposed to Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon derided by opponents as a corrupt autocrat who abused power to enrich his family business.

Pitch Pongsawat, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, said many residents sympathized with the movement, but chafed at the prospect of being labeled a Thaksin supporter.

"They have many followers in Bangkok, but these people are ambivalent because of the stigma of Thaksin," he said.

"The Thai media is their obstacle, it portray the 'red shirts' as blind followers of Thaksin, which means if you join them, you approve of Thaksin."

Thaksin lives in self-imposed exile, mostly in Dubai, and has delivered rousing video-link addresses to the "red shirts," many of whom brought him two landslide election wins and remain loyal because of his populist policies.

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