Page last updated at 00:17 GMT, Thursday, 23 April 2009 01:17 UK

Seeing red in rural Thailand

By Lucy Ash
BBC Radio 4, Crossing Continents

As they prepared to descend on the capital Bangkok for recent protests, supporters of ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra raised money and morale in the red-shirts' heartland in the north-east of Thailand.


Seeing red in rural Thailand

The field outside the radio station is the size of two football pitches and it is crammed with tables.

Red tables, of course, with red table cloths.

People keep arriving with sacks of rice and big baskets of mangoes and chillies. Outside the studio, an army of women chop and slice vegetables.

They laugh and sing as they work. Everyone seems in high spirits.

As the sun goes down, the place fills up. Nearly everyone is wearing red T-shirts. It is a hot, sticky evening but on stage the lycra-clad dancing girls perform a frenetic number in knee-high boots.

Rural 'empowerment'

Behind them there are massive posters of two men: on one side Thailand's former PM, Thaksin Shinawatra and on the other, the host of tonight's party, Kwanchai Paipanna, the head of the Udon Lovers community radio station.

Kwanchai, a large man with a matching voice, is the local Mr Big - one of the most influential men in the town of Udon Thani. He was once a successful DJ and record producer promoting 'Luk Tung', Thai country music.

"I am a child of the field," he says. "I never used to take any interest in politics."

Udon Lovers party
Supporters of the Red Shirts at the Udon Lovers fund-raising party

He tells me that he only set up this radio station three years ago, to counteract what he regarded as propaganda from the yellow-shirt movement, as it pushed to get rid first of Mr Thaksin himself and then the subsequent pro-Thaksin governments.

"After Thaksin came to power, everything changed. We found we could work together to effect change in our local areas in ways we had never done before," he says.

"But after Thaksin was deposed, things began sliding backwards," he adds.

"Our hands were freed and then it felt as if they'd been tied up again. But now the whole country is hooked up to the internet and villagers have learned how to communicate with each other. Thanks to Thaksin people here understand they have a part to play in the political system."

Heading to Bangkok

We are in the poorest part of Thailand, a forgotten backyard of muddy streams and rice fields which stretch as far as the eye can see.

Udon Thani is a drab place which only gets a fleeting mention in tourist guides. Yet, politically, the north east is very much on the map.

Now the government only looks after the rich - it doesn't care about poor people like us
Noong Lak
Thaksin supporter

This is the land of the red-shirts - the home turf of those activists demanding the dissolution of Thailand's parliament and new elections.

They claim that the current government is illegitimate. It came to power on the back of the yellow-shirt demonstrations last year.

The red-shirts also accuse the country's elite - the military, judiciary and other unelected officials - of undermining democracy by interfering in politics.

The Udon Lovers party is being held to celebrate the third birthday of the radio station but it is also a giant fundraiser.

Each table seating 10 costs 2,000 baht ($56) and for many people here that is a fortune - more than half of what they make in a month. Yet all 430 tables were sold out in advance. The money, says Kwanchai, will be used to hire buses to take thousands of red-shirted protesters to a big demonstration in Bangkok.

Away from the stage I came across Noong Lak, a demure lady in her 50s. She and her sister had made a long journey to join the festivities.

DJ Hong Tong
DJ Hong Tong is one of the stars of the Udon Lovers community radio station

"We had to sell all our rice to come tonight," she says. "Maybe later we won't have enough to eat. We might have to catch frogs or live off fish but we wanted to support our radio station.

"Now the government only looks after the rich - it doesn't care about poor people like us."

Many of the villagers say they are sick of being treated as stupid by "southerners" in Bangkok. They are particularly incensed by the charge made by some of their opponents that they are not well enough educated to decide who should lead the country.

"The elite, they think people up here are sub-human," says Dr Weng Tojirakarn, a national red-shirts leader who has dropped in on the festivities. "That's why they call us buffaloes."

The party guests at the radio station include many poor rice farmers and factory workers but there are also young professionals, business people and students.

Loan scheme

At one of the tables I meet Ploy, a young woman with a red ribbon in her hair.

She has just graduated from a university in Chon Buri, south of Bangkok, where she had to keep a low profile as the only red-shirt in her class.

"Many people hate Thaksin and say he is a thief," she says. "But he is the first prime minister who has given something back to this country.

"Perhaps he is corrupt - I don't know. Everybody in power is corrupt but he at least gave some benefits to the poor".

The morning after the party as scores of volunteers begin a massive clean up, Mr Kwanchai takes me on a tour. He wants to show me how the village loan scheme introduced by Mr Thaksin has improved the lives of local people.

Kwanchai Paipanna
Kwanchai Paipanna, the head of the Udon Lovers community radio station

Pichit Pimar and a handful of other farmers used the cheap credit to set up a lucrative business growing mushrooms. He says they are now gradually paying back the loan.

He takes me inside a structure made of bamboo with a corrugated iron roof where thousands of creamy brown mushrooms with delicate stems are sprouting in moist bags of soil. In the UK, this exotic variety commands a high price in supermarkets.

"I earn twice as much as I used to. Before, I lived in a tiny house and I picked up odd jobs. Now I have a decent sized house and a car," he says.

Mr Pichit is particularly proud that he can now afford to send his son to college to study engineering. Nobody in his family has ever gone on to higher education before.

Now in hiding

Another measure introduced by Mr Thaksin's government is the 30 baht healthcare scheme. Under the scheme, hospitals are obliged to treat patients for a flat charge equivalent to just less than a dollar per visit.

While some villagers say this has saved lives, critics claim it is a populist stunt which has bankrupted hospitals and failed to deliver proper treatment.

The arguments about Mr Thaksin - the great hero for some and the corrupt, autocratic crook for others - are a reflection of the extreme polarisation of this country.

On my last day in Bangkok, I bumped into Mr Kwanchai behind the stage at the main rally site around Government House. He was jubilant having arrived at dawn with 5,000 supporters from Udon Thani.

Ultimately despite their huge turnout and all the fiery rhetoric, the red-shirts failed to reach their goal. When the military intervened they called their protest off.

Now many of the leaders have gone into hiding, including Mr Kwanchai.

As for his station, the day after the crackdown, the police arrived to remove all the broadcasting equipment. For now at least the Udon Lovers have been silenced.

Crossing Continents: Thailand is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 23 April 2009 at 1100 BST and repeated on Monday, 27 April at 2030 BST.

You can also listen to Crossing Continents on the BBC iPlayer or subscribe to the podcast .

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