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Red Shirt protest crushed, but spirit strong as ever

A firefighter works to contain a blaze at CentralWorld shopping centre in Bangkok on Thursday. Wednesday's violence saw government forces evict Red Shirt protesters from the city's major shopping district.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

In military terms, the Thai government's victory over the rag-tag collection of protesters known as the Red Shirts was utter. The medieval-looking Red fortress in Bangkok's commercial centre was smashed, the thousands of protesters camping inside were dispersed, their leaders arrested.

Though the violence was ferocious at times, there were far fewer casualties than had been feared, in large part because key Red leaders either fled or surrendered as the fighting escalated.

But winning over the half of the Thai population that still believes in the Red Shirt rallying cry that this country is deeply unequal will take something far subtler than the soldiers and armoured personnel carriers that cleared the streets of Bangkok this week.

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In the hours after thousands of Thai troops smashed through tire-and-bamboo barricades and used live ammunition to force an end to the nine-week anti-government protest, a shaky sense of order returned to the Thai capital, even as smoke continued to rise from burning shopping malls and banks and Red Shirt remnants exchanged occasional fire with troops pursuing them around the city.

Fearing more unrest, the government has imposed a dusk-till-dawn curfew on Bangkok and much of the rest of the country that will remain in place into the weekend. Military checkpoints remain around the capital.

While the heavily outgunned fighters who made up the informal armed wing of the Red Shirts proved no match for the military during Wednesday's street battles, the grievances that motivated tens of thousands of people - many of them poor villagers from the north and northeast of the country - to spend nine weeks sleeping in the streets of Bangkok will prove far harder to conquer.

"Sweeping people off the streets is the easy part. The fundamental divide, the rift, doesn't go away… a significant section of the population isn't going to just disappear because of this," said Duncan McCargo, a professor of Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds. "There's a very intense social discord."

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The Red rank-and-file still believes that this country's system is tilted against them and in favour of the Bangkok elites. They still detest Abhisit Vejjajiva and the backroom deal making that brought him to power. They still resent the 2006 coup that overthrew the populist Thaksin Shinawatra, and want to see him or his allies return via a new election - and it remains likely they'd win such a vote.

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Thailand's Blackest Day was how the Thai newspaper The Nation referred to the violence Wednesday that left at least 15 people dead and nearly 100 others injured. Eighty people are known to have died in sporadic violence since the Red Shirts first took to the streets on March 12 in what was supposed to be a peaceful campaign to bring down the government. Hundreds more have been injured, including two Canadian journalists.

Mr. Abhisit seems to realize that he has a very narrow opportunity to calm the situation if he wants to avert more chaos and possibly the civil war that many have been predicting. Government officials said Thursday that the Prime Minister planned to go ahead and implement the five-point reconciliation plan that had been narrowly rejected by the Red Shirt leadership just before the crackdown.

The government is anxious to bring an end to the instability that had already cost the country billions of dollars in lost revenue - as tourists fled and businesses in the Red Shirt protest area were forced to close - even before some 40 buildings were torched in Wednesday's fighting.

Key to Mr. Abhisit's peace plan was an offer to hold a Nov. 14 election, one year before his term in office is due to end. It wasn't clear Thursday whether that specific date was still on offer.

The unspoken reason why the Red Shirts wanted to see parliament dissolved and a new election held sooner than Nov. 14 is that army chief General Anupong Paochinda is facing mandatory retirement in September. Whoever is in office at that point will get to choose his successor, a crucial decision in a country that has seen 11 military coups in the past seven decades. New provincial governors and top civil servants will also be named at the same time.

Class war is a real risk in this country of 63 million so deeply divided between poor and rich, rural and urban, as well as the more obvious faceoff between anti-government Red Shirts and yellow-shirted supporters of the governing pact between the elites, the military and the monarchy.

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Just as dangerous are the geographic splits: much of the Red support is centred in the north and northeast of the country, while - almost forgotten amid the chaos of recent weeks - the predominantly Muslim south faces a completely separate and decades-old insurgency that has left thousands dead.

Already, signs were emerging that the Red Shirts may take their struggle elsewhere after losing the battle of Bangkok. As soldiers were moving Wednesday against the main protest site in Bangkok, rioting spread to six provinces in the north. "There is a theory saying a military crackdown can spread resentment and these resentful people will become guerrillas," Mr. Thaksin, whom the government accuses of funding and masterminding the unrest, warned from exile.

We've been here before. A year ago, many pundits were predicting the end of Mr. Thaksin and the Red Shirt movement, after similar anti-government protests were dispersed after brief street clashes that left two people dead and the Red leadership - as now - seemingly in disarray.

The Red Shirts returned to the streets of Bangkok this year better prepared and more determined to get the change they were demanding. They set up new radio and television stations to get their message out, and held small training camps around the country to prepare their supporters for the clashes to come.

When the army first moved to disperse them on April 10, armed Red Shirts fought back with surprising effectiveness, forcing the military to pull back and wait another five weeks before trying again. The military succeeded on its second try, but the government is left farther than ever from reconciling Thailand's warring halves.

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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