Thai army's struggle to unite polarised country

Jonathan Head finds "fearful and silent" towns in the red shirt stronghold of Udon Thani

The "red villages" of Udon Thani are red no longer. Under orders from the military authorities, the red flags and banners have gone, the red gates and buildings are painted over.

Few people are brave enough to wear red shirts any more.

One of the army's first acts after staging its coup in Bangkok was to detain, or summon, all those with important leadership roles in the UDD, the so-called red-shirt movement.

The group was established six years ago to counter the royalist yellow-shirt groups dedicated to bringing down governments linked to the family of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Start Quote

I can't eat, I can't sleep, this feels like torture for me. I would love to speak out - but if I did that, I would have to leave the country.”

End Quote Kamsaen Resident of 'red-shirt' village

It detained yellow-shirt leaders too - but clearly saw the red shirts, with their strongholds in the populous north and north-east and their hostility to military intervention, as the main threat to the coup.

The second act of the coup makers was to order an end to the colour-coded politics, which has polarised Thailand for the past eight years.

When the detained leaders were released, they were forced to sign agreements that they would stop all political activity and refrain from inflammatory statements.

Surprisingly - considering the tub-thumping speeches they used to deliver from the stages of their red rallies, warning of a mass uprising if there was a coup - many of those leaders have emerged from detention calling on their followers to co-operate with the new military rulers.

'Catch me if you can'

A handful has continued to defy the ruling council's orders to surrender themselves, risking arrest and imprisonment by doing so.

Thai soldiers stand guard at the main entrance of the pro-government red-shirts rally site in Bangkok May 2014) The army says it wants to take the colours out of Thai politics and end years of polarisation
Boonsom, a rice farmer and dedicated follower of the red shirt movement For followers of the red shirt movement such as Boonsom, it can be dangerous to display their true colours
A yellow shirt wearer in Bangkok (May 2014) The wearing of yellow shirt to make a political statement is likewise being frowned upon by the military

The best-known of these, Sombat Boonngamanong, leader of a group calling itself Red Sunday, helped organise anti-coup protests in Bangkok, and taunted the army from his Twitter and Facebook accounts with the tag "Catch me if you can".

After two weeks on the run, they did indeed catch him, reportedly tracing his internet IP address.

But the mass of red-shirt supporters in the area around the provincial city of Udon Thani have been left confused and demoralised by the coup, according to activists there.

They had expected to be called on by the UDD leadership to take part in organised resistance to the takeover. That has not happened.

Instead, some local activists, especially those running the all-important community radio stations which played an important role in mobilising the red-shirts, have been called in for questioning.

Checkpoint in  Udon Thani The army is now firmly in control of Udon Thani and the rest of the country

The radio stations have been shut down, their equipment confiscated and their houses searched.

Soldiers now operate checkpoints on all the main roads around Udon Thani, and they have built bunkers at sensitive locations.

The military presence is no longer a heavy one, but the population is acutely aware of it, and of the fact that the army now runs their lives, and will penalise anyone who resists.

Forced to hide

It was a very different scene when I last visited the area six months ago.

I went back to Nong Hu Ling, the first community here to declare itself a "red village".

Last December, you saw posters everywhere of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and of her brother Thaksin.

Kamsaen, Korngchai's wife Kamsaen, like others in the "red village", is reluctant to voice her views for fear of retribution

One of the biggest Thaksin portraits I have seen was given pride of place against the outside wall of the home of village head Korngchai Chaikang - it was rescued from one of Thaksin's election campaigns.

Beneath his confident gaze, villagers prepared food for communal meals and debated politics and the yellow-shirt protests in Bangkok which were crippling the Yingluck government.

Korngchai's wife, Kamsaen, told me then she was ready to die for democracy.

This time, when I arrived the house was quiet, and bare - no posters anywhere. Kamsaen and Korngchai showed me where they now kept the Thaksin poster, still in its wooden frame, hidden in a spare room.

"I can't eat, I can't sleep, this feels like torture for me," said Kamsaen. "I can't accept this. I would love to speak out - but if I did that, I would have to leave the country."

She had printed out some anti-coup slogans on A4 sheets, ready to join a protest in Udon Thani.

"But if the military comes, we will just move away," she said. There was little appetite for confrontation anywhere in the village.

File photo: Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra with members of her new cabinet at Government House in Bangkok, 10 August 2011 A court ruling forced Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (pictured) from power ahead of the coup

A few kilometres away, I found Boonsom, a rice farmer and dedicated follower of the red-shirt movement.

Boonsom lives in a hut in the rice-fields with no electricity and no running water. When I met him, he could not raise enough money to rent the tractor he needs to plough for this year's crop.

He used to help mobilise people in his district to attend the big red-shirt rallies - he met his second wife there, and loved the themes of social justice and empowering poorer Thais that he heard in the speeches.

But after the coup, he said he had had little communication with red-shirt leaders, and was unclear what he should do.

"We will just wait, and watch what they do," he said.

"If they don't perform well, they will have to give up power. After all, there are more of us than there are soldiers. There are more people in just a few of our villages than in the whole army."

'Gun at our heads'

Inky was a red-shirt DJ at one of the community radio stations near Udon. But since the military raided the station and shut it down, she has been moving from place to place ever since, anxious that she will be detained.

"We have to stop our activities, because we have a gun pointed at our heads - we have to. But we don't want to. I feel so bad towards the army. How are they going to run the country, without the people's support?"

Inky voiced a complaint I heard a lot around Udon Thani - that the army was taking sides against them.

Why did they never help the government when it was being crippled by yellow-shirt groups in Bangkok, they asked? How come the military can now push the infrastructure projects that the Yingluck government was condemned for pushing?

Soldier in Thailand (file photo) The army faces a difficult challenge trying to eradicate the influence of the Shinawatra family

Two things were clear in the red-shirt areas of Udon Thani. One was that there is little organised resistance. Inky told me the army is very nervous about the local population, but that few people are planning to fight back.

The other is that the red-shirts have not given up their beliefs, and that there is a great deal of anger over the coup.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) that now rules Thailand is planning to establish reconciliation centres to persuade people to give up their colour-coded political allegiances.

The aim appears to be to de-politicise the strongholds of the party which has won every election for the past 14 years, and eliminate the influence of the Shinawatra family.

Its prospects for success do not look good.

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