By Ambika Ahuja and Jason Szep
NONG HU LING, Thailand (Reuters) - Its brilliant green rice paddies, thatched-roof huts and overgrown jungle resemble most rural villages in northeast Thailand. But the red sign looming over a quiet dusty road in the community of Nong Hu Ling is something different.
"Red Shirt Village for Democracy," it reads, proclaiming its allegiance to the red-shirted, anti-government movement whose protests paralyzed Bangkok last year and sparked a bloody military crackdown that ended with 91 people killed and hundreds of activists arrested.
"After what happened in Bangkok, people were scared to wear red shirts," said Kongchai Chaikang, chief of Nong Hu Ling, a village of 350 people in Udon Thani province, about 450 km (280 miles) northeast of Bangkok. "They feared they would be harassed by police or followed by plain-clothes officers. We want to give them courage by sticking together."
The idea is catching on. Ahead of a July 3 national election, dozens of rural communities are branding themselves a "Red Shirt Village" in this poor northeast plateau, home to a third of the country's population, giving the movement grass-roots muscle to mobilize behind its parliamentary allies, the opposition Puea Thai Party.
The mostly low-income red shirts broadly support ousted populist premier Thaksin Shinawatra in a five-year political conflict against the traditional Bangkok elite that includes top generals, royal advisers, middle-class bureaucrats, business leaders and old-money families who back the ruling Democrat Party.
At least 320 villages in the provinces of Udon Thani and Khon Kaen have designated themselves "Red Shirt Villages" through regional offices of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), as the movement is formally known.
The phenomenon underlines the government's failure to pacify opponents ahead of an election many fear will deepen the divide between the urban and rural poor on one side and the elite on the other, a rift that drove Thailand close to full civil conflict last year.
The villages and their defiance also highlight the failure of a year-long national reconciliation effort, heightening concerns that the losers of the election will not accept the results, a tangible risk in a country scarred by 18 coups since the 1930s and five years of sporadic unrest.
The polarization comes at a delicate time with Thailand's unifying figure for six decades, 83-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, hospitalized for nearly two years. The military and supporters of the establishment often invoke his name to rally the public against the red shirts, dragging the monarchy into the political melee.
In the balance is Thailand's well-crafted image as "The Land of Smiles", a catchphrase that crumbled last year under a catalog of horrific scenes: banks on fire, military snipers firing on demonstrators, mysterious black-clad gunmen rallying behind protesters, grenades exploding in the business district, and free-wheeling Bangkok reduced to 9 p.m. curfews.
The red shirts have launched about 50 red villages in the past two weeks alone, said Anond Sangnan, the UDD's secretary-general in Udon Thani. Last week, they inaugurated five at once in Udon Thani's Sam Prao sub-district.
"After we lost last year, we decided we would fight this battle differently," he said at the launch of one village, whose Buddhist leader marked the occasion in a ceremony in which red string was tied to the wrist of each villager in a symbolic show of strength.
"Originally we wanted the villages to show how much support the movement had, a symbol that empowers people. But it is also a mobilizing tool," he said.
In total, 129 red-shirt villages have been launched in Udon Thani and another 100 in neighboring Khon Kaen, he said. The bigger goal, he added, is to carve out entire red districts and provinces.
Inside the villages, slogans on red T-shirts and posters rail against the "double standards" of Thai society, accusing the rich, the Bangkok establishment and top military brass of breaking laws with impunity -- grievances that have simmered since a 2006 coup overthrew Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon-turned-prime minister who is revered by the poor as the first politician to have addressed their needs.
Thaksin's smiling image beams from red signs at the entrance to the red villages. From his villa in Dubai, where he lives in self-imposed exile, he has good reason to smile. His sister, Yingluck, a telegenic 43-year-old businesswoman with no political experience, has electrified supporters since her May 16 nomination to lead the opposition.
Reuters interviews with a dozen red-shirt leaders, activists and local businessmen suggest the movement has been energized by Yingluck's popularity. Any perceived injustice to her at the polls could be enough to galvanize supporters and touch off a new wave of unrest.
Opposition to Yingluck is fierce among the royalist establishment who toppled her brother. Her supporters fear the courts or powerful behind-the-scenes figures will intervene to prevent her from forming a government if her party dominates.
"If Puea Thai wins and they don't let us form a government, Yingluck should rest first. Brothers and sisters, you come out," veteran red-shirt leader Nattawut Saikua told a recent rally of about 30,000 supporters in Udon Thani. "Attack. Attack," he added to waves of applause. "Let's get this over with and finish the fight. Then we will bring Yingluck back to become prime minister."
It is a message that resonates with Wan Suwanpong, a 72-year-old lawyer and radio DJ, who says the election is not about bread-and-butter issues but social justice.
"This is what I have been telling my listeners," said Wan, whose show reaches tens of thousands of listeners in five provinces on one of several red stations in the northeast set up to rival government broadcasters.
"If we win the election, we need to be ready to go to Bangkok quickly. We need to get food ready, transportation ready, and then we head to Bangkok, surround parliament and raise pressure so the party that comes in first is allowed to set up a government." he said.
Pressure is something Wan knows a thing or two about. In October, authorities turned up at his previous studio, cut the mast-wires and hauled off the equipment. Now he operates in a hole-in-the-wall studio with a bright red carpet on a farm.
While he is a populist hero to the poor, Thaksin has been branded a "terrorist" by the government, which accuses him of directing protests that descended into urban warfare last year.
Even among red shirts, he is divisive. He declares himself the embodiment of democracy, but his record tells a different story. Critics accuse him of abusing his electoral mandate to dismantle constitutional checks and balances while cementing his own authoritarian rule during his two administrations from 2001 to 2006.
A 2003 war on drugs burnished his image as a crime-buster and won votes, but human rights groups were appalled at 2,800 deaths in extra-judicial killings in the first three months of the campaign. Corruption scandals, and alleged abuses of power steadily eroded his popularity among Bangkok's middle class.
That was compounded by royalist accusations Thaksin was undermining Thailand's powerful monarchy -- charges he said were politically motivated. Simmering anger exploded in 2006 when his relatives sold off, tax free, their $1.9 billion stake in Shin Corp, his telecoms empire, to a Singapore state company.
But in the northern heartlands, he remains a hero.
His populist policies -- from virtually free healthcare, to easy consumer credit and a system of low-interest loans to the nation's 70,000 villages -- were unprecedented, winning him enough support to become Thailand's first elected leader to complete a full four-year term without being unseated by a coup or pressured into stepping down.
The policies proved so popular the current government is extending them.
Rural, conservative Thais say they are willing to overlook his authoritarianism, actually welcoming his take-charge, CEO-style leadership. His ouster reinforced his image as a mold-breaking outsider who had challenged the Bangkok elite and lost.
Thaksin fled Thailand in 2008, weeks before he was sentenced in absentia on corruption and conflict-of-interest charges, settling in Dubai where he keeps in close touch with supporters through Skype, Twitter and Facebook. A court last year seized $1.4 billion of his assets, but he retains considerable wealth after investing in gold, coal and platinum mines in Africa.
Thaksin describes his sister Yingluck as his "clone" and she does little to dispel that image, hewing to soundbites echoing her brother's populism.
She has rebuffed repeated requests by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva for a debate despite polls showing undecided voters want to see her take on the British-born 46-year-old economist, an eloquent speaker whose debating skills were honed in the halls of England's Eton College and Oxford University.
Thronged by supporters at Udon Thani's airport for her first appearance in the northeast, she stuck to well-worn talking points, vowing to heal the political divide.
That will be difficult. Many red shirts want Abhisit's government to be held to account for civilian deaths during last year's military crackdown. Abhisit denies troops were responsible for any casualties and blames shadowy black-shirted gunmen among the red shirts for the killings.
"I am happy to talk to every side," Yingluck said in an interview with Reuters that was nearly drowned out by cheers in an airport lobby packed with red shirts. "Most importantly, this election is one that will bring true democracy to Thailand so I would like to persuade everyone to accept the result."
That could depend on whether she goes ahead with a general amnesty that would effectively pardon her brother, clearing the way for his return and risking the re-awakening of anti-Thaksin protesters who stormed parliament in 2008, occupied two airports and helped to topple a pro-Thaksin government.
When pressed on this by Reuters, she was non-committal. "I cannot make rules for one person," she said. "I have the interest of the public in mind first."
Yingluck is well managed but not well known beyond her name. She is the youngest of nine children in a family of ethnic Chinese silk merchants, graduated from Chiang Mai University in the north and received a master's degree in political science at Kentucky State University.
She rose swiftly through the ranks of family companies, first as managing director of Advanced Info Service Pcl, a mobile phone provider formerly controlled by Thaksin before it was sold to investors, and then as president of SC Asset Corp, a property developer.
Her affable, relaxed manner and northern dialect connect with rural Thais, but she stumbles occasionally on policy.
From the stage at a rally in Udon Thani, she breezed through promises of Thaksin-style policies before tripping over the price of rice. "What about rice? Are we going to buy rice from farmers?" she said. The crowd, clearly apprised of her party's policies, roared back the answer. "Yes."
"Jasmine rice will be bought at 15,000 baht ($495), right?"
"No, no 20,000 ($660)," shouted the crowd. Yingluck didn't skip a beat. "That's right, 20,000 baht," she said. "See? There are real fans who are listening," she added, to wild cheers.
In a subsequent Reuters interview, she elaborated on her economic priorities, saying she would not interfere in currency trading, vowing to cut the corporate tax rate and to pursue big infrastructure projects in the mold of her brother whose government built Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport, the largest in Asia when it launched in 2006.
Economists praised Abhisit's government for steering the country out of its first recession in 11 years in 2009 and generating economic growth last year of 7.8 percent despite the civil unrest. Thailand's stock market was one of the world's biggest gainers last year, climbing 41 percent.
But the Democrats have not won an election in 20 years.
Abhisit is desperate to change that, promising policies straight out of Thaksin's populist playbook, including a 25 percent increase in the minimum wage, diesel and cooking gas subsidies, and free electricity for the poor. Two years ago he rolled out free healthcare to replace a Thaksin plan in which patients paid just 30 baht ($1) a visit.
The campaign platforms of both sides are trying to deal with Thailand's widening wealth gap. The richest 20 percent of Thais earn 55 percent of the country's wealth. That figure is close to Tunisia's, the epicenter of the "Arab spring" uprisings, where the top fifth take in 47 percent of the wealth, according to World Bank statistics.
Thailand's northeast is its poorest and most populous region. Its sons are Bangkok's taxi drivers and its daughters dominate its racy go-go bars. Although poverty in Thailand is down from 27 percent of the population in 1990 to about 8 percent now, many Thais in the red-shirt strongholds of the north and northeast live just above the poverty line.
Per capita GDP in Isaan is about $1,410 a year -- an eighth of Bangkok's. Many red shirts believe Thaksin would have changed that and say they have suffered under Abhisit. But this reflects global trends, not national politics. While Thaksin presided over a period of relative economic stability, the world's fortunes shifted under Abhisit, as the global financial crisis hit.
WILL THE RESULTS BE RESPECTED?
Most polls show Yingluck performing well and suggest the opposition will grab the largest number of the 500 available seats. But Korbsak Sabhavasu, the Democrats' campaign manager, and many independent analysts doubt either party will secure a majority, opening the way for both sides to wheel and deal with smaller parties to form a coalition.
That's where Korbsak reckons Abhisit has an edge. If Yingluck fails to stitch together a coalition, the opportunity passes to Abhisit.
What will happen if Yingluck loses? The answer may lie in the wooden homes in the red shirt community of Nong Hu Ling. Kongchai, the village chief, says he will accept a fair Democrat win, but he is skeptical.
"We stand for democracy so we have to accept what the majority want even if it's not what we want," he said. "But people will mobilize if the election is robbed."
Kongchai and his wife, Kamsan, choose their words carefully -- and for good reason.
They have been under close surveillance since joining Bangkok's protests last year. With their two-year-old daughter, they lived under tents with tens of thousands of protesters occupying Bangkok's main shopping district, showing solidarity with red-shirt leaders.
Three days before a military crackdown, Kongchai returned home. His 18-year-old son, Kittipong, had joined a protest at the governor's office. When the military launched its assault on the red shirts in Bangkok on May 19, riots erupted in Udon Thani, and the governor's office went up in flames.
Kittipong, a quiet boy who worked the eucalyptus fields, was arrested a month later, one of 51 detained in connection with the destruction of the municipal hall. Just over half were released, but Kittipong was held without bail. His case went to court in May. He shares a packed cell with seven other prisoners, some accused of murder and drug trafficking.
Kongchai blames himself. He pulled Kittipong out of school when he was 15 to join an early wave of pro-Thaksin rallies. In December, local red-shirt leaders brought supplies to his village, including blankets and food. A nearby village had branded itself a 'Red Shirt Village' with a red sign.
He liked the idea. The movement was in disarray. This was a way to change that, he said.
"In the beginning, it was 20-30 people talking half-jokingly about this idea over lunch. We weren't going to do anything organised. But then the idea caught on."
The authorities are watching closely. "Officers will drive by, peek in, take pictures, ask our neighbors whether I have gone to Bangkok. They follow me," Kongchai said.
Since April, they've had new visitors: soldiers from a military unit responsible for national security issues that went after Communists in the 1970s. The soldiers, who are well known in northeast, have offered to renovate the poorest house in Kongchai village -- a hut with a thatched roof.
"They always ask for something in exchange," said his wife, Kamsan.
On some visits, the soldiers bring framed portraits of the king as gifts to hang in homes. The villagers find it hard to refuse. In Kongchai's home, the king's picture hangs on a wall next to a poster of Buddhist monks. But a far bigger, life-sized picture of Thaksin is draped along another wall.
A spokesman for the military unit was not available for comment.
VIEW OF THE MONARCHY
As Thailand's polarization deepens, views of the monarchy have changed, part of a broader cultural shift in the largely Buddhist country where the king has been revered as almost divine for three generations.
Most still express steadfast loyalty to the king, the world's longest-serving monarch, but his throne is seen as entwined with the political forces that removed Thaksin, especially ultra-nationalists who wear the king's color of yellow at protests.
Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn has yet to command the same popular support as his father, raising questions over whether royal succession will go smoothly.
Long-simmering business, political and military rivalries are rising to the surface, forcing Thailand to choose sides between supporters of the Bangkok establishment or those seeking to upend the status quo.
For others such as Kongchai, being "red" is a much more simple equation, boiling down to sheer double standards and economics.
His son is one of at least 417 people detained in connection with violating an emergency decree during last year's red-shirt protests, according to Human Rights Watch. But none of the thousands of yellow-shirted supporters of the establishment -- who occupied two airports in Bangkok in 2008 for eight days in a campaign to bring down a Thaksin-proxy government -- have been arrested, and Thailand's army did nothing to prevent the airport siege.
"I am still a red shirt because there is still no justice for my son," he said.
(Editing by Bill Tarrant)