Sunday, September 19, 2010 - 20:30

Video journalist David O'Shea reports from the first protest by the Thai Red Shirts since the violent clashes and deaths in Bangkok in April and May.

It comes after an emergency decree to stop them was lifted in parts of the country, meaning their campaign in support of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra can continue.

But why are Shinawatra's supporters having to raise money for the multi-billionaire's campaign?

David also meets a leading commentator, who talks of a country divided between the Red Shirts and royalist Yellow Shirts, and the dangers of taking sides.

Plus there's the uncertainty over the ill health of the country's elderly King Bhumibol Adulyadej, with strict laws limiting discussion of royal issues.

WATCH - View David's report on the turbulence in Thailand.

- Get the latest travel advice from the Australian Government's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade about visiting Thailand.

REPLAY - Watch Ginny Stein's March 2010 report for Dateline about the political uncertainty surrounding The Red Tide of protests.

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Well today as it turns out, is a very sensitive date in the Thai calendar, it marks the 4th anniversary of the bloodless coup that removed Thailand's former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and it's also today that the pro-Thaksin Red Shirt movement was born. Now as David O'Shea tells us, despite being routed on the streets of Bangkok just a few months ago, the Red Shirts have been regrouping in the north of the country for yet another battle against the Thai government.

REPORTER: David O'Shea

For three months these red banners have been gathering mould in the tropical humidity, but now that the Red Shirts are re-emerging in Thailand's north they're needed once more.

SIWAN JANHONG (Translation): At first we thought after the protest was broken up, that would be the end of everything. But now the emergency decree has been lifted, we can feel the faith that people have in fighting on. So fight we will.

It's like we are going into battle again, cleaning it again - entering a new battle for democracy.

During April and May, Siwan was a key figure in the north, handling the logistics of getting demonstrators to Bangkok.

SIWAN JANHONG (Translation): It looks much better - I thought we would never use it again.

He was earlier charged with breaching the emergency decree, which banned gatherings of more than five people. But now the decree's been lifted, Siwan's calling together a crowd to see how the authorities react. He chooses a neighbourhood known as "Thaksin Town" birth place of the Red Shirts' main backer, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

SIWAN JANHONG (Translation): Today we use this small stage to get to know eachother again, to talk it all out - revise and relive our memories. We won't forget this in our lifetimes.

The few that are bold enough to attend watch violent videos of the army's assault on the Red Shirts in Bangkok.

NEWS REPORT: There's injuries on both sides, then the violence escalated. The grenade goes off.

SIWAN JANHONG (Translation): Shall we continue to fight?

CROWD (Translation): Yes.

SIWAN JANHONG (Translation): Louder, for the morale of all here today. Will we fight?

CROWD (Translation): Fight!

The birth of the Red Shirts can be traced to September 2006 when the Royalist Yellow Shirts succeeded in ousting Prime Minister Thaksin. Thailand has been split ever since.

SHAWN CRISPIN, EDITOR, ASIA TIMES ONLINE: You either hate Thaksin or the government at this point and yes, Thai society has become extremely polarised around this conflict.

Bangkok-based journalist and long-time Thailand watcher Shawn Crispin has run foul of both sides.

SHAWN CRISPIN: You can't take sides in this fight because both are illiberal and have shown that they both have anti-democratic tendencies and histories. So is if this is a fight about democracy, there are no good guys and there are no proponents.

He says the exiled billionaire, Thaksin can turn the Red Shirts on and off at will.

SHAWN CRISPIN: People have been looking into this notion that this is an organic world-based pro-democracy group but really it's a pressure group bankrolled and manipulated by Thaksin. The agenda is to restore Thaksin's power and his wealth.

And the rank and file are once again doing their best to help.

ANONG, ACTIVIST (Translation): Farmers, especially one like me, we want democracy. That is the first thing we want. Then we want Prime Minister Thaksin to returnbecause he understood the grass roots, farmers like us. He was the kind of person who;. He helped farmers first, he was concerned about us.

I joined farmer turned activist Anong as she does the rounds raising funds.

ANONG (Translation): Anyone home, my red shirt brothers and sisters?

First she tries the local tailor and then a farmer who wears his Thaksin T-shirt with great pride.

FARMER (Translation): I wear it every day.

She asks him to help her collect money.

REPORTER: You're asking a poor farmer to collect money for you when you have your leader Thaksin is a multi-billionaire, shouldn't he be paying?

ANONG (Translation): Mr Thaksin is now facing hardship, they took his money and much else besides. His bank accounts are frozen so he couldn't give money to support us, we don't want him to get in more trouble.

At the Red Corner café in downtown Chiang Mai; these people are preparing to join another demonstration. They're marking the new era with a new outfit, black not red and with a mask.

MAN (Translation): We can shield your face from the media like this, it will help you hide your face - so it has a double function. Anyone who wants one, come and get it - ten baht!

After being comprehensively routed in Bangkok in May, they're trying to redefine their struggle.

MAN (Translation): We are not going to bash our heads against the wall, we'll chisel the wall away, bit by bit - till it collapses. In four or five years, the wall will fall completely.

It's not long into their meeting before the topic gets sensitive.

MAN (Translation): Can you ask him to stop filming from here on?

Afterwards he explains why.

MAN (Translation): Because we discuss a certain kind of power, a power that is high above and beyond political power and that talk will change the country. It is something that Thais can't discuss in front of the media.

Thailand has strict laws that forbid public discussion of the monarchy. Several Red Shirts are serving long sentences for this crime and Thaksin himself is seen to be challenging the ailing king's power.

SHAWN CRISPIN: Thailand needs to have a conversation with itself, a rational and non-violent conversation about where the country should head after the passing. But because these laws are in place the country can't have that conversation.

And until that happens, Thaksin's future is on hold.

SHAWN CRISPIN: There is this thought out there that if he can just keep his powder dry, so to speak and wait until that day, that you might find he has a re-entry point into Thai society and Thai politics, that he would be perhaps more likely to receive an amnesty under a new king. God, I'm going to be burned.

SIWAN JANHONG (Translation): This slingshot was at the battle of Sala Daeng.

The star attraction at today's demonstration is a Red Shirt leader from Bangkok with a back ground in theatre who brings a sense of drama to the day.

RED SHIRT LEADER (Translation): At Rajaprasong. People were killed; people were killed at Rajaprasong. People were killed;.

REPORTER: Explain to me, what is this symbol, it looks very rude?

PROTESTOR (Translation): In Thailand it's difficult, it' idiot country, we cannot talk what we are thinking. We just show something;. Sign and use the red shirt and finger, middle finger to the government, yes.

REPORTER: it's very clear.

PROTESTOR (Translation): Yeah.

While these Red Shirts can show their faces and speak out... There are hard line elements in their movement who cannot.

The Red Shirt leaders like to present their organisation as non-violent, but what happened in Bangkok in May betrayed that image. This footage shows a group of armed Red Shirt paramilitaries, who occupied strategic locations in the capital at the end of the May violence. Mystery surrounds just exactly who they are. But Dateline understands they include soldiers and police.

SHAWN CRISPIN: That's rebellion, that's armed rebellion. Imagine if you know, a group of guys dressed in black surrounded the White House in the United States, what do you think the US security forces would have done to those people?

The Red Shirts claim their armed guards were only there to provide protection. I'm given a contact for a woman who explains she's in hiding with some of these men. She claims they're still armed and that an unnamed government security officer told her their lives were in danger.

WOMAN (Translation): He told me there was a death list. A blacklist of people the government wanted to get rid of. During that time; there were incidents we knew of in our circle - people were being hunted down or had already been killed.

Dateline has no way of verifying her claims, but another Red Shirt organiser on the run who can't be identified says they're taking every precaution.

MAN: The Red is ; everyone needs to change location, needs to change lifestyle, need to change what you are wearing or something like that - like glasses, like;

REPORTER: One day glasses on, one day off?

MAN: Yes.

Still in shock at the scale of the defeat, he warns that more conflict is unavoidable.

MAN: At the end of these problems in I think is thhe civil war.

REPORTER: Who will pay for that from the Red Shirt side, civil wars won't be cheap? Thaksin's money again?

MAN: No.Thaksin is not the leader to be in civil war, because;.

REPORTER: He was the first to warn of civil war?

MAN: Right now, if Thaksin passed away, no problem - because everyone can think by themselves, can do by themselves.

SHAWN CRISPIN: What we're more likely headed towards say a Fillopean-style hit and run political assassinations rather than a full blown guerrilla army.

WOMAN (Translation): We have to come out for the struggle and if a civil war is unavoidable then I, too, am prepared to take up arms and fight. It's not the right time yet but if you ask if we will return - the answer is 'definitely'. All the red shirts will go back when the call comes.




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19th September 2010