Thai red shirts predict peace after election win

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 03, 2011 10:43 AM
Thai red shirts predict peace after election win

By Michael Perry

UDON THANI, Thailand (Reuters) - The message from Thailand's rural heartlands, a bastion of red-shirt protesters who paralyzed Bangkok last year, was simple.

"Thailand will be peaceful," said Kwanchai Praipana, a protest leader in northeastern Udon Thani province, after the movement's populist hero Thaksin Shinawatra's sister won Sunday's national elections.

The red shirts celebrated Yingluck Shinawatra's strong performance in the election as a peoples' victory in a sometimes violent, six-year political conflict.

Many had feared the election would deepen a divide in Thailand between the red-shirted urban and rural poor on one side and the traditional elite on the other, a rift that drove Thailand close to full civil conflict last year.

"We now trust the government to use the power to do everything to help the poor people," Kwanchai said.

The red shirts have rallied behind Yingluck but fear her Puea Thai Party may be prevented from governing, despite her winning an outright majority of 261 seats in the 500-seat parliament as projected by the Election Commission.

Kwanchai, for instance, complained about the number of spoilt ballots, saying the Electoral Commission had made papers too complex for many old people. "The spoilt papers will be sent to court," he said.

Another red shirt leader, Thida Thavornseth, said poll booth officials in many provinces had told voters to sign their ballot papers instead of mark a cross, spoiling their ballots in the process.

With 54.6 percent, or 25.6 million votes, counted, total spoiled ballots from both constituency and party lists totaled 2.43 million.

Tens of thousands of red shirts protested in Bangkok's main commercial district last year. Ninety-one people died and nearly 2,000 were wounded when the army broke up demonstrations centered on the Rajaprasong intersection, surrounded by five-star hotels and shopping malls.

"The 91 people that died at Rajaprasong, we are doing it for them," Kwanchai said. "...This win is very important because it will determine Thailand's destiny."

In northeast Thailand, home to a third of Thailand's population, villagers accuse Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's Democrat Party of colluding with the army to perpetuate a traditional hierarchy, often at the expense of the poor.

Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon, scored landslide election wins in 2001 and 2005 by appealing to the rural poor with populist policies, from cheap credit to universal healthcare. He was ousted in a coup in 2006.

Abhisit's backers -- the royalist establishment, the military and urban middle class -- want Thaksin to serve a two-year prison term for corruption. They say Yingluck is a proxy for her brother and would clear the way for Thaksin's return.

"The military must change," Kwanchai, jailed for nine months on terrorism charges after last year's protest, said. "They cannot have a coup because everyone is watching, the world is watching.

"The only way Puea Thai cannot form government is if the army steps in. If they do, red shirts will fight, but that won't happen. They do not dare to act because this is the people's decision. They can't have a coup."

He said Thais had spoken in one voice but that he expected Puea Thai to form a coalition, despite having a majority of seats, in order to unite the country.

(Writing by Nick Macfie. Editing by Jason Szep)