Support bleeds away from the heartland
As the crisis drags on in Bangkok, those living in red shirt strongholds are questioning their loyalty to the Pheu Thai Party
In the middle of nowhere _ near a pond surrounded by jungle and bamboo _ four men in a distant corner of Udon Thani gather every evening after working in the fields.
DAILY RITUAL: Prayuth Pratedsena, Saeng Srisomrod and Jandee Pimsaeng discuss their disenchantment with the Pheu Thai Party after work, which has become routine. PHOTOS: CHAIYOT YONGCHAROENCHAI
The group, from Ban Thung Yai in Thung Fon district 50km east of Muang Udon Thani, are mostly aged in their sixties and look like any typical friends who gather for a beer after their day's work is over. But that is not why they are here.
''When the government tried to pass the amnesty bill, I lost all my faith in them and the Pheu Thai Party,'' said Thawin Pimwised, 49, who joined the group to discuss the current anti-government protests in Bangkok led by former Democrat MP Suthep Thaugsuban.
''If Mr Suthep didn't do what he is doing now and is ready for a fight at the election, he might stand a chance of winning.''
Mr Thawin's comments would be troubling to Thaksin Shinawatra and the political support base he has formed in the North and Northeast of the country. Ban Thung Yai _ population 9,000 _ is one of the so-called red shirt villages set up to sustain the former prime minister's popularity in rural areas. Across the nation, there are 16,000 of these villages and Udon Thani province is considered the heart of red shirt territory.
But as the Bangkok protests drag on and the country counts down the final weeks before the Feb 2 election, Pheu Thai's credibility is being questioned by the very rural voters who delivered the party to power in 2011. They are disgruntled that the failed amnesty bill _ which would have paved the way for the exiled Thaksin to return to Thailand _ would have meant the perpetrators of the 2010 crackdown against the red shirts which left more than 90 people dead would allow them to also escape justice.
There is also growing rural disenchantment over the rice-pledging scheme with fears the cash-strapped Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives will be unable to make payments to rice growers.
The government faces further pressure over the scheme after the National Anti-Corruption Commission announced last week corruption charges would be laid against 15 people involved in a government-to-government deal to sell the stockpiled rice to China.
Ban Thung Yai farmer Saeng Srisomrod, 65, is now one of those now questioning their loyalty to Pheu Thai after the amnesty bill fiasco. He said red shirts were still fighting for justice over the 2010 crackdown under the Democrat-led government.
''If you [the current government] don't respect us, we have no reason to be faithful to you,'' he said.
''What will happen if Pheu Thai becomes really powerful one day and you have the right to kill anyone and get away with it? That's what we think is going to happen if the government passes the amnesty bill. That is why we lost our faith in Pheu Thai for a while.''
At the heart of the red shirt origins was opposition to the 2006 coup which ousted Thaksin, a politician his rural supporters believe had markedly improved their living standards since he was first elected in 2001 and delivered populist policies such as the 30 baht universal healthcare scheme.
The largest umbrella group for the red shirts is the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), but the movement was riven by the amnesty bill and loyalty to Thaksin no longer necessarily translates to support for Pheu Thai.
SINGLE-MINDED: Right, Nakha Market, which locals have turned into an Otop fair.
A survey by the Isaan Poll Project in November found Pheu Thai support in the Northeast dropped from 80% after the 2011 election to about 64% in the third quarter of 2013 and at the same time support for the opposition Democrats, who are not contesting the Feb 2 poll, remained low.
Palitporn Hongtanitorn, coordinator for the Red Shirt Village Federation for Democracy in Udon Thani, said the formation of the villages was mainly symbolic.
''After the political conflict we had in 2010, we decided that we wanted something to show that we are fighting for democracy,'' she said.
The first red shirt village was established Nhong Huu Ling on Dec 15, 2010, with the only declaration of its status a giant image of former prime minister Thaksin in front of the village and red flags.
Legally, the red shirt villages are no different from others in administration and status, but spiritually, they serve as hubs where red shirt supporters can gather.
Ms Paltiporn said that the red shirt villages now had to move beyond the symbolic to become examples at a national level for how democracy should operate.
The villages have councils to allow residents to participate in decision-making, have educational courses on democracy and encourage commercial agriculture which goes beyond subsistence.
''We are fair to the villagers,'' Ms Paltiporn said. ''Before we put up any [red village] signs, I'll let all the villagers vote first to see whether they are OK with becoming a red shirt village. If the vote is more than 51%, we will open it as a red shirt village.'' Farmer Jandee Pimsaeng, 67, pines for the days of the Thai Rak Thai Party, a predecessor of Pheu Thai that was wound up in 2007 due to electoral fraud, and life under Thaksin's leadership.
Mr Jandee said he had never seen a politician as aware of grassroots people as Thaksin.
''We could actually rely on them and they took care of our welfare,'' he said, pointing to the 30 baht healthcare scheme and debt suspension and reduction projects.
''I started off from the 3,000 baht community fund that I got from Mr Thaksin's government,'' he said. ''I bought corn seeds, sugar cane, mushroom, bamboo and some other plants. Then I started to grow them and sell them.''
Mr Thawin, who expressed his doubts about caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's Pheu Thai Party, agreed that her brother helped them be able to stand on their own two feet.
He said before the 30 baht healthcare scheme he would have to sell a buffalo to pay for medical treatment. ''Moreover, the hospital didn't treat us as decent people who could afford to pay their own hospital bills,'' said Mr Thawin. ''Now I can walk into the hospital and get very good treatment.''
Mr Saeng said the only other prime minister to address the issues of the rural poor was MR Kukrit Pramoj in 1975-76.
''He gave the villagers roads and developed many things in our area and he brought many careers for our people,'' Mr Saeng said. ''After MR Kukrit, no one comes as close as Mr Thaksin in terms of development.''
BACK IN BANGKOK
Mr Jandee said what is happening in Bangkok was lawless, and Mr Suthep was a dictator.
''I'm angry and sad to see Mr Suthep is overthrowing the government that I elected with my own hand, but I can't do anything about it,'' Mr Jandee said.>>
Mr Jandee believes under Ms Yingluck Pheu Thai has had good policies but they have not been implemented well by those under her.
''This is the weak point of the party,'' he said. ''For example, the rice-pledging scheme seems to be good. But people who work on the issue don't implement it well enough.
''Our lives are now stable. We are able to get by each day during Ms Yingluck's government, but it can't be compared with the time under Mr Thaksin at all.''
Mr Saeng believes none of the red shirts in Udon Thani are attached to any political party at the moment.
''The only thing that they are attached to is their work, and policies and outcomes that benefit them,'' he said.
He said any party that enacted policies to give rural people a better quality of life, even the Democrats, was likely to win support.
''If the Democrat Party wants our vote, they will have to be able to do what they promise people,'' he said.
Even Mr Suthep's idea of an appointed people's council to govern while political reforms are undertaken has currency among some red shirts who place a premium on democracy.
Villager Prayuth Pratedsena, 63, said he agreed with a people's council and reform as long as Mr Suthep was not the only one having input.
''If they are going to establish the people's council, we should have our voices heard by that council,'' he said. ''We should be able to be part of it. We are living in a democratic country, we have to vote on this if they want it to be accepted,'' Mr Prayuth said.
''If Mr Suthep writes his own rules, brings in his own people to get involved and rules the country that way, we won't accept that.''
Mr Jandee said while Ban Thung Yai villagers don't know what the outcome of the conflict will be, they will be disappointed if Ms Yingluck yields to Mr Suthep's demands.
''Right now, it's beyond breaking point,'' he said. ''I gave her my vote but if she doesn't respect us, I will be ready to fight and vote for another party.
''Even if the government gives up, we guarantee that we will never give up.''
He warned if there was a military coup, all red shirts would unite for a fight against the system. ''One of the reasons that red shirt villages exist is to oppose the  coup.''
UDD leader Tida Tawornseth said her organisation was firmly against a coup, and had yet to mobilise its supporters against Mr Suthep's People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC).
She said the situation was still under the government's control and it was their duty to deal with the PDRC.
''But once it's beyond the government's power, maybe it's time for people to consider what action should be taken,'' Ms Tida told Spectrum.
Asked what stance it had on Pheu Thai, Ms Tida said as long as it showed it was legitimate, the UDD would support it.
She said the UDD believed the amnesty bill was ''illegitimate'' but once the government withdrew the bill the ''illegitimacy shifted to Mr Suthep as he did not stop the protests''.
''The UDD supports two things, legitimacy and legality,'' Ms Tida said.
Ban Thung Yai red shirt villagers are also fed up by being portrayed by some opponents as hillbillies and anti-monarchists.
Mr Jandee said red shirt people were looked down upon as being aggressive, rude and uneducated.
He said while he could accept most of the prejudice against the red shirts, the anti-royalist allegation was unacceptable.
''Don't say that red shirt people are anti-royalist,'' he said.
''His Majesty the King stays above the law. Please don't drag him down to this political mess we have. I love the King and I respect him. You can see that every house here has the image of the King on our walls.''
Mr Prayuth said: ''I love the King, I respect him a lot. But I hate and have no respect for the people who accuse us of being an anti-royalist group.''
Even in the heart of a red shirt enclave such as Muang Udon Thani there is room for both sides of the political divide. There are two restaurants next to each other in the city that are busy most nights.
One restaurant sells rice soup and has signs indicating they are red shirt people. The owner wears a red shirt and they have many decorations indicating their strong support. The red shirt Asia Update channel is on all the time.
Next door is an Isan hotpot restaurant displaying signs supporting the opposition. Even though the owner doesn't wear any specific colour to show which side he is on, he has the Democrat Party's Blue Sky channel on to monitor the protests in Bangkok.
People might think the two owners hate each other, but surprisingly they get along very well.
''Just because we believe in different things doesn't mean we can't live together in harmony,'' said the owner of the hotpot restaurant.
''No matter what colour we are, we are after all human.''
Mr Jandee said that Mr Suthep should keep in mind that if the Democrats respected the election process they could still make inroads with voters in the North and Northeast.
''My vote can't be bought with money,'' he said. ''If any party can come up with some truly amazing policy, we are more than willing to vote for them.''
Additional reporting by Piyaporn Wongruang.
SYMBOL OF SUPPORT: a sign with an image of Thaksin is brandished at Ban Thung Yai village.
THAKSIN’S SEEDS: Above, from left, Jandee Pimsaeng on the road to his home, where he tends to his farm.
HEART OF THE PARTY: From left, Jandee Pimsaeng’s wife, Saeng Srisomrod, Prayuth Pratedsena, Thawin Pimwised, Jandee Pimsaeng and Alitporn Hongtanitorn in Ban Thung Yai.