'Yellows' return to Thai street politics

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.

 

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