UDON THANI, Thailand: With a flurry of punches and kicks, hundreds of Thai “Red Shirts” undergo self-defence drills as they mobilise to protect the embattled government, stoking fears of a dangerous new phase of civil conflict.
While far from a battle-ready militia, the ranks of sun-weathered rice farmers brim with determination to prevent opposition protesters in Bangkok toppling Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Drawn from the poor but populous north and northeast, the Red Shirts broadly support ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s elder brother.
Their rhetoric has crescendoed over the last few weeks, matching an intensifying barrage of legal challenges that could lead to Yingluck’s removal from office.
In anticipation of her fall, the Red Shirts say they will bring thousands of supporters to a Bangkok suburb today for a two-day rally.
The move looks to raise the stakes in a six-month political crisis that has left 24 people dead and hundreds wounded in grenade attacks and shootings, often targeting protesters.
A military crackdown on Red Shirt rallies in Bangkok against the previous government in 2010 left scores dead and parts of the city’s commercial centre smouldering.
The backdrop is an eight-year struggle between a royalist establishment, supported by the judiciary and the military, and Yingluck’s family, which has traditionally enjoyed strong support in the northern half of Thailand.
“We have lion hearts... We are real fighters,” local Red leader Kwanchai Pripana said on the sidelines of a training camp in the movement’s heartland of Udon Thani.
At the camp, around 500 men and woman, mainly middle-aged, gamely rehearsed Muay Thai boxing moves and parade drills despite the sapping heat. They have shed their red T-shirts for new black uniforms, in symbolic mourning over a court decision to nullify a February general election disrupted by protesters. AFP