Chiang Mai residents attend a candle-light and lantern-floating vigil to urge non-violence in the lead-up to today’s election.They plan to call the uprising from a dingy 11th floor apartment above Chiang Mai, northern Thailand’s capital. ”Be prepared. When the time comes, I will call you out onto the streets,” radio host Mahawan Kawang exhorts his 50,000 listeners.
”We must be ready to defend our Prime Minister and our country’s democracy,” he says.
Mahawan’s 105.50 FM is one of 2000 community radio stations across northern Thailand that have a pact to call out their millions of listeners if Thailand’s embattled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is toppled in what pro-government red shirt supporters claim is an unannounced coup under way 700 kilometres away in Bangkok.
”Don’t be afraid. In Bangkok they look down on people from the north and say we are uneducated, but we must show them that democracy is for everyone … our vote gives us the same rights as their vote,” says Mahawan, a popular celebrity with a master’s degree who is known as ”DJ Nok”.
A few kilometres away, former police senior sergeant Pichit Tamoon sips coffee outside the red-painted headquarters of the city’s red taxis and reveals plans for the mobilisation of 500,000 red shirt supporters who until now have largely remained quiet as anti-government protests have crippled Yingluck’s government and shut down parts of Bangkok ahead of Sunday’s national elections, which authorities fear could turn violent.
Pichit, the red shirt co-ordinator for 17 vote-rich provinces, paints a disturbing scenario that would see northern Thailand’s political separation from Bangkok and southern provinces and almost certainly stoke further violence in the country of 64 million people.
”We will not be the ones who will start the war, but if a coup happens, we will announce that we will fight,” Pichit says.
”Our groups have met and we have developed a plan to defend against an elite group that is bent on destroying our democratic system,” he says.
Under the plan, Chiang Mai, a former ancient capital among Thailand’s highest mountains, would become a base for red shirts who would come in en masse from 37 of Thailand’s 76 provinces, Pichit says.
Yingluck, Thailand’s first female Prime Minister, would evacuate to the city that is home for her powerful family, including brother Thaksin Shinawatra, the former billionaire prime minister living in exile who has been the target of an eight-year campaign to purge him from Thai politics.
From Chiang Mai, 46-year-old Yingluck would be encouraged to keep on governing as the legitimate rival to whoever takes over in Bangkok.
Under the plan, half of the mobilised red shirts would then descend on Bangkok to confront anti-government protesters, while the rest would mass in Chiang Mai.
”If we go to Bangkok, the protesters on the streets now will run away,” Pichit says.
”We can outnumber them 10 times. Most of them are middle-class people with money. They will not sacrifice what they have and will run to their homes for safety,” he says.
Asked if red shirts have weapons, Pichit, a 44-year-old father of two, says ”they are all prepared, but we cannot talk about it”.
In many countries it would be easy to dismiss such alarmist talk as propaganda designed to pressure political enemies.
When the Thai military launched a coup to depose Thaksin in 2006 there was a muted response from supporters in his political party that was then called Thai Rak Thai.
But long-simmering grievances have surfaced as Yingluck has been locked in a brutal struggle for her political survival.
As the latest episode of Thailand’s conflict has escalated into almost daily shootings and attacks in Bangkok, red shirt leaders have confirmed the holding of strategy meetings and plans to bring their supporters onto the streets if the government falls.
They are counting on the backing of the police, where Thaksin was a senior officer until 2001 and still has support among the ranks.
In 2010 red shirts occupied the centre of Bangkok for months before a bloody crackdown left at least 90 people dead and hundreds injured.
And militants in underground wings of the red shirt movement have been quoted in Thai media as saying they have stockpiled weapons and ammunition in Bangkok and surrounding areas, matching intelligence reports cited by the Thai military.
Pichit says red shirts have remained patient and low-key in the crisis so far ”because we don’t want to cause more problems for Yingluck”.
He says they believe unnamed powerful interests are orchestrating the fall of the government by either military intervention or judicial coup.
Thailand’s courts have been unusually active in recent weeks in taking on cases against Yingluck and members of her Pheu Thai party while the military, maintaining its neutrality for the moment, has staged 18 coups or attempted coups since the 1930s and shares the establishment’s loathing of Thaksin.
On the eve of Sunday’s election only candidates supporting the government and red shirts have campaigned in Chiang Mai, a city of 200,000 where the main opposition Democrat party, which is boycotting the polls, does not even have an office.
Yingluck is promising reform and compromise before calling another election in about a year.
With voters in her party’s rural bastions likely to turn out in force, victory seems certain but she will face a host of legal challenges as she tries to form a new government.
Attending a candle-light vigil held to urge election non-violence, Somchai Chanawan, 63, a former civil engineer who runs a coffee shop in Chiang Mai, says most people in northern Thailand want to defend the country’s democratic values but there are differing views on how to do it.
”I believe in using bare hands … that is, casting with my vote. I want my vote to have rights. How can they take away my right to vote?” he says, referring to threats by protesters to block people from going into polling stations on Sunday.
Even if polling goes ahead smoothly in most areas, protesters say they will continue their campaign aimed at destroying the Shinawatra family’s power at a time of deep concern over the health of 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the future royal transition in the country where the monarchy remains extremely influential.
While based in a luxurious mansion in Dubai to avoid a jail sentence over a 2006 corruption conviction, Thaksin – with a fortune estimated at $US1.7 billion – has bought and sold Manchester City football club, acted as an economics adviser to developing countries, operated mining ventures in Africa, launched a lottery in Uganda and met the late Nelson Mandala.
But he continues to wield huge influence in Thailand where his enemies demonise him but where he is adored as a hero by many, particularly those in rural areas such as north-eastern Isan, the country’s poorest region.
”I love Thaksin because he has brought many ideas that have helped us … he has good vision,” says Anong Jaichauy, a 56-year-old mother of two from a poor rice-farming family in Sampatong district, 30 kilometres south of Chiang Mai.
When he was prime minister, Thaksin, 64, implemented cheap healthcare, easy consumer credit and low-interest loans to 70,000 villages.
Yingluck went further when she was elected in 2011, introducing tax rebates for first-time car and house buyers, higher minimum wages and a costly rice subsidy scheme that government critics call ”Thaksonomics,” which they claim is a form of corruption.
Holding a photograph of herself with Thaksin, Anong says she is ready to lead villagers to Bangkok to defend Yingluck, sleeping on the footpath the same as she did during red shirt protests in 2010.
”Look around. We see all the trouble on the television every day and people no longer smile,” she says.
”People are upset. We cannot sit by and do nothing.”
Another of Thaksin’s initiatives was to grant licences for communities to have their own radio stations, which Mahawan, the radio host, describes as a ground-breaking way to empower disenfranchised and impoverished villages.
”When Thaksin was overthrown in 2006, my listeners were calling in incensed that a democratically elected leader could be treated that way,” says Mahawan, 47.
”They were also calling in to radio stations across north and north-eastern provinces and they became known as red stations which were reflecting the views of listeners,” he says.
Soon after the coup, soldiers raided Mahawan’s station, took away his equipment and kept him off air for two years. Other red stations were also closed.
But Mahawan says that this time the military will not be able to take him off air in the event of a military take-over or imposition of martial law that includes censorship.
”They wouldn’t dare. They know the feeling of people is now too strong … the people are saying on radio this is their last chance to stand up for our democratic rights, for the sake of our nation,” he says.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.