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A tale of two Thailands

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Stout and loquacious, Khamsi Audomsi runs a roasted-banana stall in the covered market of San Kamphaeng, a small town outside Chiang Mai, the main city of northern Thailand. In front of where she fries her wares, a greasy wall is festooned with posters and calendars devoted solely to the Shinawatra clan: former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, deposed in a 2006 coup and now in self-imposed exile, and current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who takes orders from her older brother in Dubai.

Thanks to Thaksin's policies, Khamsi says, her family's prospects were transformed. A student-loan plan allowed both her son and daughter to go to college, a family first. Now their relatively well-paid jobs help to pay for her health care. For this, Khamsi repays Thaksin and his sister with her undying loyalty. She was a founder of the 'red shirts,' Thaksin's grass-roots political movement.

It is the sort of story you hear time and again in northern and northeastern Thailand: how Thaksin's social policies, dismissed as mere populism by his opponents, helped people to escape poverty. Chiang Mai and the 16 provinces around it are almost solid red-shirt territory. The 20 provinces of Thailand's poor northeast, a region known as Isan, are even redder. The flames of devotion burn brightest in San Kamphaeng, which is where the Shinawatras come from and where they return to be buried.

Khamsi and her fellow red shirts are looking forward to the general election on Feb. 2. Yingluck called it in an attempt to break the political deadlock that has gripped the capital, Bangkok, since November. They can renew their vows and demonstrate once again the strength of the red shirts and the supporters of the ruling Pheu Thai party. Parties run by Thaksin have won every election since 2001, precisely by dominating the rural north and northeast.

For that very reason, the anti-Thaksin forces are boycotting the election altogether. Led by a former MP, Suthep Thaugsuban, they have staged mass protests in Bangkok in hopes of ousting Yingluck. Suthep and the Democrat Party, the main opposition, argue Thaksin's money has poisoned the electoral process and say they will participate only after the system has been cleaned up. Their disruptive tactics may yet cause the election to be postponed or even cancelled.

Suthep launched his crusade three months ago, at the time of the government's heavy-handed attempt to force through a bill granting Thaksin amnesty from convictions for corruption and abuse of power. In reality, Suthep's protests are only the latest round in an increasingly bitter struggle for the political soul of the country, between the northern red shirts and an ultraroyalist establishment that controls much of the capital and the southern provinces.

The struggle is turning ugly again, and risks splitting the country in two. At least nine have died as men of violence creep onto the stage with sniper rifles and bombs. Each side blames the other for these shadowy provocateurs. On Jan. 21, Yingluck declared a state of emergency in Bangkok and its surrounding districts.

Although the red shirts will dutifully vote on Feb. 2, they are focused mostly on how they might protect their government, and Yingluck, from the coup they are all expecting. A coup might be a military one, under the pretext of stopping violence escalating in Bangkok, or a judicial one, with the courts barring Pheu Thai politicians from taking office because of alleged offenses against the constitution. Both have happened before, and the red shirts see both the army and the courts as tools of the Bangkok political establishment.

If Yingluck, who was elected in a landslide in 2011, is forced out of Bangkok, she will be welcomed in Chiang Mai, where she will be encouraged to keep on governing as the legitimate rival to whoever takes over in the capital. That might trigger a de-facto split between north and south.

Indeed, many red shirts say Bangkok already is lost. Suthep has nearly free rein there, closing down most government offices. The police have charged him with insurrection and seizing state property, but have made no attempt to arrest him. The imposition of a state of emergency for 60 days might not make much difference.

Thus most red shirts in the north and northeast now contemplate -- indeed seem to be preparing for -- a political separation from Bangkok and the south.

Some can barely wait. In Chiang Mai, a former classmate of Thaksin's says in the event of a coup, the next steps are clear.

"The prime minister can come here and we will look after her," he says. "If... we have to fight, we will. We want our separate state, and the majority of red shirts would welcome the division."

Be afraid for Thailand as the political system breaks down.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2014 D7

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