Informal 'red shirt' chief ready to take up arms
As Thailand's snap elections approach and violence escalates, militant groups on both sides of the divide - anti-government supporters bent on derailing the polls and supporters of the government adamant that they take place - are spoiling for a fight. Indochina bureau chief Nirmal Ghosh and Thailand correspondent Tan Hui Yee speak to two of their leaders to find out how far they would go to achieve their aims.
By Nirmal Ghosh Indochina Bureau Chief In Bangkok
KEY areas of inner Bangkok may be overrun by anti-government protesters but, along a busy road where the capital merges with the province of Pathum Thani to the north, Mr Wutthipong Kotthamkul holds sway from a small but fortified rival camp.
Ensconced on a strip of sidewalk, behind steel plates and rubber tyres, with a box full of machetes and a few golf clubs handy, Mr Wutthipong, better known as Go Tee, and his followers are ready for a fight.
There is no sign of guns but, asked if they were available, the 46-year-old laughs and says: "There are plenty; all you need is money, and I don't have to spend it anyway. People will just come and donate guns to me."
Mr Wutthipong started life as an abandoned infant on Bangkok's streets and grew up to earn a degree in law, later becoming a businessman and host of his own radio station Red Guard Radio.
He sees his pavement camp as the front line for the pro-government "red shirts" who fought the army for former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2010, and helped power his sister Yingluck to the premiership in 2011.
But Mr Wutthipong has little time for leaders of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), the formal umbrella group of the red-shirt movement. And as Thailand teeters on the edge of a precipice, it is loose cannons like him - local godfather-like figures euphemistically called "'influential people" - who are the hot buttons that could trigger a wider conflagration. Says Mr Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher for the independent Human Rights Watch: "Red-shirt leaders may assure the public that they will avoid confrontation and violence, but Go Tee won't listen to the party line."
Already, Mr Wutthipong's supporters have been accused of clashing with anti-government protesters on Jan 10 and last week. Police are investigating him over his alleged involvement in the violence. But he insists he is being made a scapegoat, there is no proof of his involvement in the incidents, and anti-government radicals are out to get him.
The anti-government Peoples' Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) has been trying for weeks to oust Ms Yingluck and derail the Feb 2 snap polls she had called in December after dissolving Parliament, calling for an appointed "people's council" to institute sweeping reforms before returning to electoral democracy.
The PDRC's backbone is Bangkok's upper middle classes and opposition Democrat Party supporters, who allege that Thaksin, in self-exile since 2008 to dodge a two-year sentence for corruption, is buying the loyalty of voters in the north and north-east with cash and lavish promises.
The powerful army, which kicked Thaksin out of office in 2006 and cracked down on his supporters in 2010, has so far stayed on the sidelines, but has not ruled out seizing power.
As the political deadlock deepens with the Democrat Party boycotting the polls, which are expected to return to power the erstwhile ruling Puea Thai party seen by PDRC to be Thaksin's proxy, the prospect of violence has grown. With the absence of a political exit, it may be the only way out of the impasse. Already, more than 250 have been hurt and eight killed in politics-related violence over the last three months. More violence could provide the excuse for army intervention - which will provoke its own backlash. With Thai society polarised, it appears violence will continue.
Mr Wutthipong, for one, is determined to fight both the PDRC and the army on principle, he says. Thaksin had made the fruits of democracy tangible for ordinary people, he insists. "I don't fight for Thaksin," he says in the interview at his camp. "But Thaksin is a symbol." He cites Thaksin's 30 baht-per-visit scheme that made health care accessible to all. It gives people a tangible sense of equality, he says.
Mr Wutthipong is not an uncritical supporter of the Puea Thai government, saying it is corrupt. Neither is he a member of the party or UDD, he says. But if the election is derailed, or the army takes over, "we will fight any which way we can", he vows. "And if we can't live together peacefully, we would rather not live together. If the country has to be divided between the north and north-east, and the south, let it be divided."