The roots of Thailand's protest movement

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Thailand's anti-government movement has been clashing violently with the police and soldiers. The unrest reflects a political dispute that goes back several years. The World's Matthew Bell reports on the political roots of the current chaos.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. Violence erupted again in Bangkok today. Thai soldiers fired on anti-government protestors in the city center. The protestors, known as red shirts, have been holed up in a fortified camp for weeks. At least eight people were killed in today's fighting and more than 100 wounded. We'll hear more about Thailand's escalating violence, but first The World's Matthew Bell reports on what led up to the current standoff.

MATTHEW BELL: The chaos in the streets of Bangkok with the red shirts facing off against soldiers is the culmination of years of political turmoil. Back in September 2006, Thailand's Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra was opposed by another protest movement. Kevin Hewison is a professor at the University of North Carolina and an expert on Thai politics. In some ways Hewison says the street scenes back then were similar to those of recent weeks.

KEVIN HEWISON: Except that the protestors were all wearing yellow shirts, which is the monarchy's color. And those protestors were determined to get rid of Thaksin and in the end the military did that.

BELL: The yellow shirts were a mix of royalists, businessmen and middle class city folks. The red shirts who are protesting in Bangkok today, formed in response to the yellow shirts, the coup and the government that followed. Hewison says some of the red shirts are simply loyalists of the deposed Prime Minister, Thaksin.

HEWISON: But as we've seen the red shirt movement develop, I think we can refer to it as a people's power movement because its drawn quite extensively for its support, from people particularly in rural areas but also in the working class areas around Bangkok. So while it's not a movement of the poor versus the rich as some people have portrayed it, and the media often portrays it, it is in fact a movement of people who have not necessarily had a particularly strong role in politics before.

BELL: But they are playing a role now, Hewison says, and they're relishing it. There are two other important political actors worth talking about. One is the Thai military. For the most part, it supports the current government, but a small number of officers support the red shirts. The most prominent one, known as Commander Red, was shot in the head yesterday while doing an interview with foreign reporters. Then there's the Thai monarchy. During past times of political unrest King Poomipon Adoonyahdet was seen as peacemaker. He's quite elderly and in poor health, however, and Kevin Hewison says the King is unlikely to be able to resolve this crisis. Hewison says it's tough to see a way out that doesn't involve more bloodshed.

HEWISON: The country is poised on a knife edge and my guess is if large numbers of people are killed and injured in this operation, which the government is now saying could last another three days, could lead to remarkable resentment in the areas of the country which support the red shirts and we may see Thailand facing more and more instability into the future.

BELL: The Thai government says it is going to remove red shirt protestors who have been barricaded in the city center for more than two months now. Protest leaders meanwhile say they're not going anywhere. They say the current government lacks legitimacy and they want fresh elections. For The World, I'm Matthew Bell.