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‘Yellows’ return to Thai street politics

The largely working class, rural ‘Red Shirts’ political movement remains a key force in Thailand
BANGKOK — With neatly spaced tents, massages, free vegetarian meals
and a heavy dose of nationalist rhetoric, Thailand’s powerful royalist
“Yellow Shirts” are back on the streets of Bangkok.
More than a
thousand people have camped out around the government’s compound since
Tuesday, demonstrating against its handling of a border dispute with
neighbouring Cambodia.
Despite relatively small numbers compared
to their arch enemies — the anti-government “Red Shirts” whose most
recent rally attracted nearly 30,000 people — the group has managed to
choke off streets around Government House.
Yellow Shirts are a
force to be reckoned with in Thailand’s colour-coded politics and have
helped to claim the scalps of three governments in under five years,
including that of fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
The
group, officially the People’s Alliance for Democracy, want the
government to take a tougher stance on the thorny issue of the
Thai-Cambodian border.
Tensions centre on 4.6 square kilometres
(1.8 square miles) of land around the ancient Preah Vihear temple,
which the World Court ruled in 1962 belonged to Cambodia, although the
main entrance lies in Thailand.
“I came here to help my country.
We have to fight to protect our land,” said protester Chutikarn
Rattanasupa, 42, a grocery shop owner from Nakhon si Thammarat in
southern Thailand.
The Yellows, who boast support from Bangkok
elites and elements in the military, used to be linked to Prime
Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, but the relationship has soured.
Abhisit
came to power in 2008 after Yellow rallies which helped to eject two
pro-Thaksin governments. The protests culminated in the seizure of two
Bangkok airports, stranding over 300,000 travellers.
Two years
earlier the Yellows had flexed their muscles with demonstrations that
destabilised Thaksin’s own government, paving the way for the military
coup that unseated him.
Paul Chambers of Heidelberg University in
Germany said Abhisit may be able to keep his “Teflon prime minister”
reputation if he does not bend to the Yellows’ demands.
But at the same time, “if he does not give in, I think the protests will continue building,” he added.
The
border issue heated up when seven Thais were arrested in Cambodia in
December for illegal entry and trespassing in the disputed zone,
including a Yellow activist who remains in jail facing spying charges.
But
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, of the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies in
Singapore, said the territory dispute with Phnom Penh is just an excuse
for the Yellows to “return into the limelight”.
“They just want
to regain political credibility and the only thing they can do is to
attack the current government, whatever the government is,” he said.
Thailand’s
street groups, with an eye on elections looming before February 2012,
are likely to become ever more prominent, said Chambers.
And the
stakes are high. Last year’s April and May protest by the mainly rural
and working class Red Shirts left more than 90 people dead in clashes
between troops and civilians.
“The shirts — of all colours — are getting out and about to make themselves heard loud and clear,” he said.
At the Yellows’ rally site, there is almost a festival atmosphere.
Facilities
provided for the comfort of protesters include toilets, showers and
recycling bins, while stalls sell everything from watches to amulets
and a caricaturist is on hand to sketch souvenirs.
A sign
proclaiming “Free vegetarian food”, next to an assortment of dishes and
a mountain of cabbage, signals the work of a group of blue-clad radical
Buddhists who are busily providing nourishment at the gathering.
But
coils of barbed wire between the camp and the locked gates of the
government compound are a reminder that the Yellows have been here
before.
“I stayed 193 days in 2008 and this time I’m prepared to stay too,” said Nittaya Kurakan, 40, the owner of an accountancy firm.
source: AFP
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