Page last updated at 11:13 GMT, Saturday, 24 April 2010 12:13 UK

The staying power of Thailand's red-shirts

Rachel Harvey
BBC News, Bangkok

Riot police face red-shirts in their camp in Bangkok's financial district
Riot police face red-shirts in front of their camp in Bangkok's financial district

Six weeks into their protest, Thailand's anti-government movement is clashing violently with the police and soldiers. While the government refuses to back down - and the red-shirts have plenty of stamina - the bloodshed looks set to continue.

The longer something goes on, the more you get used to it.

When that something is a prolonged political protest in the heart of the city in which you live and work, that can be dangerous.

Of course, I'm a journalist, so it is partly self-inflicted. But the anti-government demonstrations in Bangkok have dominated my days for six long weeks.

Each morning, on my way to the office, I check in on the protesters' camp, in an upmarket shopping and hotel district.

On several evenings, on my way home, I've shared a train carriage with some of those same protesters.

Ever since that bloodshed, Bangkok has been in a state of almost perpetual anxiety

I remember one woman, who was wearing the uniform of the office worker - smart skirt, high heels and make-up - but in her open shoulder bag, a neatly folded red T-shirt revealed her true allegiance.

That has been a striking feature of the red-shirt movement - the variety of people it has attracted.

For months, the government and much of the media portrayed the red-shirts as simple country folk, deluded in their loyalty to Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister, who had been accused of corruption.

One newspaper cartoon depicted the demonstrators as water buffalo - a highly derogatory comparison implying rural ignorance.

But the thing about water buffalo, as any South East Asian farmer will tell you, is that they have huge amounts of stamina.

So it's proved with the red-shirts.

Die-hard support

Take Tongsi for instance. I first met her back in mid-March, as she was preparing to make the long trek from her home in the northeast to join the Bangkok rally.

She's a die-hard supporter of Mr Thaksin, who was ousted in a bloodless coup in 2006.

Tongsi has neither forgiven nor forgotten that perceived wrong.

When she started talking to me about it, sitting on the concrete floor of the two-room house she shares with her husband, she had tears rolling down her face.

"Thaksin was the first politician who ever cared about us," she said.

I lost contact with Tongsi for several weeks - weeks when the protests changed from being good-natured, boisterous affairs into something more provocative.

In the early days, the red-shirts set up a well-organised camp site.

Red-shirts colour their hair at a makeshift hair saloon
Makeshift hair salons have been set up in the red-shirts' camp

There was free food, portable toilets, massage stations and a large stage from which protest leaders launched fiery tirades against the government, interspersed with folk music played at incredibly high volume.

The demand for fresh elections has remained the same, as have the logistics, but three weeks ago, the protestors moved their main camp from the historic old part of Bangkok to an area known for its expensive shops and five-star hotels.

And the rolling rallies took on a more confrontational tone. On Saturday 10 April they came to a head.

Soldiers and riot police moved in to disperse the protesters by force. The operation degenerated into running street battles.

Mysterious black-clad gunmen appeared on the side of the protesters and the army was forced to retreat.

Twenty five people lost their lives, including Hiro Muramoto, a cameraman with the Reuters news agency.

We were filming in the same place as Hiro in the late afternoon and had been chatting with him during one of the lulls in the fluctuating confrontation. Three hours later he was shot dead.

Live ammunition

Ever since that bloodshed, Bangkok has been in a state of almost perpetual anxiety.

Troops were bought back onto the streets with orders to use live ammunition if necessary to stop the red-shirts advancing on the capital's financial district.

Rumours have been circulating for days that another security crackdown could be imminent.

Where was Tongsi, I wondered. Had she gone back to the safety of her rural home? No, of course she hadn't.

Tongsi and her husband are ensconced on a pavement under a tented awning in the heart of the red-shirt's encampment.

They were caught up in the violence two weeks ago, but only suffered the effects of tear gas.

Red-shirt anti-government protesters stand holding bamboo sticks and stones
The red-shirts plan to stand their ground until their demands are met

"I can't believe the government is still refusing our demands," she told me. "I never thought it would take this long."

"After the violence, was it still worth it?" I asked her.

"If it means we get democracy, yes," she said firmly.

It was only later that I realised Tongsi hadn't mentioned Thaksin Shinawatra at all.

Events seem to have rendered her hero, if not irrelevant, than at least a peripheral figure.

The anti-government red-shirt movement has evolved.

The water buffalo are more politically aware - and more in tune with their working class urban comrades - than many had given them credit for.

This has gone way beyond one man.

This has become a bitter battle between the forces of the established status quo and a movement for social reform.

However this current chapter ends, it won't be the end of the story. And that's just something I have to get used to.

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