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Thai protesters face showdown with pro-government supporters

Napassorn Outichaya has never been inside a Burberry store. The 30-year-old rice farmer has heard tales of how much some people pay for the scarves and handbags sold by the British luxury brand, but the prices don't make sense to someone who lives on a few dollars a day.

"I have only heard about Blueberry because they were talking on television about the businesses that were affected by this," Ms. Napassorn said, getting the store's name wrong while referring to the Red Shirt anti-government protests that for weeks have shuttered the high-end shopping malls and five-star hotels of Bangkok's main commercial district. "I have never been inside these malls. Poor people like us don't go into these places, even when they're open."

But these days it is Ms. Napassorn who is doing a roaring trade on Bangkok's previously upscale Ploenchit Road. While the Burberry, Louis Vuitton and L'Occitane branches that line the same stretch have remained closed since the Red Shirts set up camp in the area earlier this month, Ms. Napassorn is making several times her usual income selling red paraphernalia - noisemakers, bandanas and T-shirts emblazoned with the face of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra - to her fellow protesters.

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The presence of tens of thousands of Red Shirts such as Ms. Napassorn - who hails from Phayao, in the north of the country - camping in Bangkok's posh shopping district is very much a case of Thailand's two very different realities colliding. In the terms favoured by the Red Shirt protesters, the phrai, or serfs, have seized what belonged to the amataya, the aristocracy.

"I feel bad for the hotels and for the staff, but this is necessary because we are fighting for democracy," said Waan Nookeaw, a 26-year-old Bangkok resident who put her own wig-selling business on hold to join the protests when they began on March 12. Like many other demonstrators, Ms. Waan said she was fed up with the "discrimination" suffered by the poor, especially since the 2006 military coup that ousted the populist Mr. Thaksin.

The Red Shirts see the current government, headed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva as illegitimate because it came to power through backroom parliamentary deals after court rulings forced two governments headed by Mr. Thaksin's allies from office. Mr. Abhisit has thus far refused the protesters' demands that he resign and call new elections.

As talk of class conflict grows, those who usually shop and eat in central Bangkok are becoming increasingly frustrated, with many openly calling for another military crackdown on the Red Shirts. Twenty-five people, including several soldiers, have already been killed in a failed military effort to disperse the protests on April 10, the worst political violence Thailand had seen in almost two decades.

A pro-government group known as the "Yellow Shirts" warned the military Sunday that it had seven days to bring an end to the Red Shirt protests before the group would take its own action "to preserve the nation and monarchy."

Though an uneasy calm has prevailed since last week's fighting, tensions remain high with Red Shirt leaders calling for more mass rallies this week and threatening to expand their protest site to include the banking district on nearby Silom Road.

The government, meanwhile, warned that the current protest area was "unsafe" and deployed police units into the high-rise buildings surrounding the main shopping boulevard. Army spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd said any attempt by the Red Shirts to expand their protest to Silom Road would be met by military force.

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"If the Red Shirts come here, all my clients will be gone," said hairdresser Phayong Kosa, sitting alone with her staff in their already deserted salon on Silom Road. She said many of her clients were already scared to come to the area because it was so close to the Red Shirt protest site. "The Thai people used to love each other. I don't how we ended up hating each other so much."

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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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