Iconic Red-shirt demonstrators hold up a placard of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin. In the background is a billboard with the King's image
Photograph by James Nachtwey[EM]VII for TIME
The scene: A dinner party in a Bangkok penthouse, silverware clinking on fine China, various foams and reductions tickling cultured palates. An out-of-town guest turns to a Thai man and asks about the red-shirted protesters calling for the government's downfall. "Who supports the red shirts?" asks the foreigner, trying to understand the years-long standoff between the red shirts and the pro-government yellow shirts. "No one," replies the Thai, dismissively, sniffing a fine Bordeaux. Then, as an afterthought, he adds, "Well, except for the poor."
When the red shirts announced plans to stage a massive rally in Bangkok in mid-March, taking supporters in by bus, tractor, boat and pickup truck, the Bangkok-based press warned of the havoc the rural hordes might wreak. City governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra advised residents to "please stay home," lest the demos degenerate into rioting as did a red protest last year. The overall mood was one of fortress Bangkok being surrounded by alien beings. Then the unexpected happened. As tens of thousands of red-shirt vehicles wound through Bangkok streets on March 20 in a miles-long caravan, members of the city's lower and middle classes emerged to cheer on the crimson convoy. Short-order cooks waved their toques, teeth-whitening technicians handed out spears of green mango and Starbucks baristas clapped in unison. A gaggle of mini-skirted ladies from the Eros Lounge even shook their booties for the crimson cause. Far from the air-conditioned enclaves of élite Bangkok, ordinary residents sweltered in the 40°C heat to make a bold statement: We do not fear the reds because we are the reds. (See pictures from Thailand's April 2009 protests.) "Class warfare" is how the red-shirt leaders describe their movement — and the designation is more than a rhetorical flourish. Within a generation, Thailand was transformed from an exotic R&R playground for American soldiers fighting in Vietnam into Southeast Asia's manufacturing base, the world's top rice exporter and one of the most inviting vacation destinations on the planet. Yet even though per capita annual incomes reached nearly $4,000 in 2009, many Thais are still stuck in rice paddies or fish canneries wondering how the nation's economic boom bypassed them. Thailand now has one of the worst income disparities in the region. The 100,000-plus red shirts who have descended on Bangkok are testament to discontent that has simmered for years only to now bubble up with explosive force. The red shirts originally coalesced as supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and later convicted in absentia of abuse of power. Their key demand is a new election, whereby a party linked to Thaksin could conceivably return to power. But in recent weeks, their raison d'être has expanded beyond loyalty to a fallen politician. The movement's leaders now include a motley crew of populist orators, social activists and opportunist politicians — all preaching the gospel of class struggle. "I don't even like Thaksin," says Thienchai Mangmeetanasothon, owner of a small business in Bangkok. "It's not about one person. It's about how the government doesn't care about people who aren't rich." A Yawning Gap Anger on the streets is directed not only at current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, an Oxford-educated economist, but also at an entire political and military establishment that many in the lower classes believe lives only to enrich itself at the common man's expense. For the red shirts it doesn't matter that Abhisit appears to be a rare clean politician in a country where politics and corruption seem as closely linked as mango and sticky rice. Nor is it significant to them that during his 15 months in power the Prime Minister has unveiled a raft of poor-friendly policies, from land reform to 15 years' free education to a pension scheme for lower-income families. "When there are divisions, people can become quite emotional," laments Panitan Wattanayagorn, Abhisit's spokesman. "Their liking or not liking you doesn't seem to depend on how good your programs are." (Read "Parsing the Color Codes of Thailand.") Instead, the red shirts are incensed that Abhisit is in office at all. In December 2007, in the first postcoup election, Thai voters cast the most ballots for a Thaksin proxy party. As fears grew that Thaksin might be pardoned by his allies and stage a political comeback, the yellow shirts responded by occupying the Prime Minister's office complex for months and hijacking Bangkok's two airports for a week. They only dispersed when a court dissolved the then ruling party as punishment for electoral fraud, allowing an Abhisit-led coalition to form through parliamentary backroom deals. "This is not a government chosen by the people," says Natthawut Saikua, one of the red shirts' top leaders. "Abhisit, get out and return power to the people."