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Page last updated at 19:25 GMT, Sunday, 16 May 2010 20:25 UK

Bangkok: A city divided by protests

Soldiers line up on Rama IV road in central Bangkok, 14/05
Violence has split the city in recent days

As government efforts intensify to dislodge the anti-government "red-shirt" protest camp from the centre of Thailand's capital, Bangkok, the BBC's Vaudine England looks at the prospects for peace.

Early morning in central Bangkok. Men emerge from an makeshift bathroom area, hair neatly slicked back, towels over their shoulders, bare torsos and sarongs.

They gather around a motorbike which has just carried in newspapers showing fresh pictures of the carnage of the day before.

In cooking areas, women are chopping huge piles of vegetables.

Inside the camp, the atmosphere is friendly and purposeful.

Waiting it out

A short walk east of the protest camp, through barricades and an army checkpoint, one enters a different world.

Sukhumvit Road is home to hotels, bars and restaurants, apartment buildings and shopping malls.

At night, the bars are open as usual. By day, the queues at the supermarkets are longer, and the guest-lists at hotels such as the JW Marriott, just beyond the edge of the army blockade, are changing.

General manager Peter Caprez said about half of his guests were Bangkok residents who had moved out of their homes inside the red zone. He jokes that his hotel has become a high-class refugee camp.

"Before this, I used to say this was a political process which has to take place, and we foreigners have to remain uninvolved," he says.

"Now, it's not only a political struggle but a conflict on the streets. We have to wait it out, keep our heads low and stay neutral."

Near the hotel, beside a railway line that divides the militarised zone from the night life district, Thais are lining up at a military registration point to get permission to cross the divide.

Red-shirt protester in Bangkok camp, 11/05
Protesters have been living in red-shirt camps for months

Crossing the political divide is much harder - many say national reconciliation will take not months, but years.

Back in the anti-government protest camp, awnings over the sleeping quarters display boards carrying gruesome pictures of dead or wounded comrades.

They are pasted up every day and groups of protesters - known as red-shirts - gather around, shaking their heads.

Six weeks ago, some of these people might have accepted an early election.

But early attempts to reach a deal collapsed. Then 25 people - 19 of them red-shirt protesters - were killed in fighting on 10 April. Since then, the anger has only grown.

The protesters have lived on the streets for many weeks, becoming increasingly confident as they derided what they saw as the weakness and vacillation of the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

They have settled in, with wooden pallets to raise their coloured mats, fans and mosquito nets - and a warm sense of community.

The old guard

But even if any protesters choose or are forced to leave, the anger will not go away so easily.

"The shooting is very bad, [it is] very bad people to kill people who have nothing," says Lek Suthin. He is usually a motorbike driver but is now spending time in the red-shirt camp.

A protester sleeps in front of the Grand Hyatt hotel in Bangkok, 12/05
Upmarket hotels are seeing a marked change in clientele

He does not insist on the return of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, but wants someone like Mr Thaksin, "somebody who makes Thailand go up".

In the camp, demonisation of Mr Abhisit is graphic and constant. Images of him painted as a devil are pasted on billboards advertising lavish new condominium complexes or boutiques.

He is seen by the protesters as a symbol of the patrician old guard.

Just over the wall from the Ratchaprasong camp is the Royal Bangkok Sports Club - an elite haven including a golf course, horse racing track and club house in the heart of the city.

The contrasts of rich and poor are a fitting reminder of what lies at the heart of this conflict - the loss of faith among the less privileged members of Thai society in the post-war consensus about how this country is run.

The protesters accuse Mr Abhisit of being unelected; his supporters point out that he has been voted into parliament in seven elections, and became prime minister through a vote in parliament.

The red-shirts feel the process lacked legitimacy.

They say the old elite was behind the military coup that deposed Mr Thaksin in 2006, and that the courts were politically influenced when they threw out the two Thaksin-allied governments that followed.

They assail what they call the double standards - terrorism charges against their own leaders while one of the so-called yellow-shirts, whose protests arguably helped bring down a government in 2008, is now foreign minister.

People have lost faith in the system.

These people are not only the poor, Thaksin-lovers from the rural north-east, but also leftist intellectuals and middle class workers in Bangkok, who help to swell the camp's numbers every evening.

Hardliners on the up?

Where once there was certainty that the monarch would intervene, there is now concern about the health of the 82-year old King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, file image
The protesters say Abhisit Vejjajiva came to power illegally

Old lines of authority and allegiance are fracturing. Police have been seen joining the protesters, government ultimatums have been ignored, peace talks have fallen apart.

Mainstream red-shirt leaders and some government figures appear united in their wish for a negotiated settlement.

But hardliners on each side appear to have gained ascendancy.

And a violent, almost paramilitary, edge has come to the streets in recent days - whether aligned to either side is unclear.

It is helping to create more bloody pictures for the protesters to get angry about.

And it is confirming that just another crackdown and another election will not be enough to bring peace to Bangkok.



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