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In Thailand's north, the Red Shirt revolt lives on

A Red Shirt supporter waits for fellow anti-government protesters at a train station in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on Friday, May 21.

Manan Vatsayana/AFP/Getty Images

Thailand's Red Shirts, bloodied but apparently unbowed, say they will gather tens of thousands of people in fresh rallies that will start this week here in the country's second-largest city, which is currently a no-go area for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The colour red, almost invisible on the streets of Bangkok since a bloody military crackdown last week on the anti-government movement, is still in vogue in Chiang Mai, the power base of fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Red Shirt radio stations remain on the air in the city and veterans of the Bangkok clashes were gathered Sunday under a red flag on at least one street corner, in defiance of the country's state-of-emergency laws. Those returning from the street battle in Bangkok were given a hero's welcome by hundreds of supporters when they rolled into the Chiang Mai train station on Friday.

People in north Thailand and northeast Thailand have a different culture than people in Bangkok. Pongpan Chumjai, Chiang Mai-based journalist

"We want to tell people that we are not hiding, that we are going to fight again after the emergency decree and the curfews are over," said Taywee Chumnanarsa, the owner of 89.25 FM, a station that broadcasts news and announcements on behalf of the formal Red Shirt movement, known as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, or UDD. Like Bangkok, Chiang Mai and 22 other provinces remain under a nightly curfew, the need for which the government says it will review on a daily basis.

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By military order, 89.25 FM is currently allowed to play only music, so DJs at the station said they were choosing "inspirational" tunes that would let listeners know that the battle is not lost.

Ms. Taywee said the Red Shirts had obtained permission to hold a mass rally in the city on Saturday. She said the gathering, which she predicted would draw 20,000 people from Chiang Mai and the surrounding provinces, would be peaceful, but warned that splinter groups from the main Red Shirt movement have gone underground and are planning a campaign of violence against the government and military.

The spectre of guerrilla warfare in the north of the country, something Mr. Thaksin warned might result from the military crackdown against the Red Shirts in Bangkok last week, is particularly unsettling for a country already dealing with a violent insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives in several predominantly Muslim provinces in the south.

Even before the recent crisis broke out, Mr. Abhisit appeared reluctant to travel to Chiang Mai, a city that in peaceful times is a tourist magnet because of its graceful Buddhist temples and a nearby elephant park. Mr. Abhisit cancelled a planned speech in November at the regional chamber of commerce after warnings that his presence in the city would spark violent protests.

Mr. Abhisit is as reviled here as Mr. Thaksin is admired. The latter, who was deposed by a 2006 military coup, is still widely appreciated for using his time in office to pour money into the north and northeast of the country, which developmentally lag decades behind the modernity and affluence of Bangkok.

The political divide between the north and the rest of the country was plain during the post-coup elections in late 2007, the last vote held in Thailand. Overwhelming support from the north and northeast propelled the pro-Thaksin People's Power Party to victory, while the rest of the country backed Mr. Abhisit's Democrat Party.

Two pro-Thaksin prime ministers were subsequently forced from office before Mr. Abhisit came to power via a parliamentary vote in December of 2008. Since that time, Red leaders have taken to rallying their supporters around the language of class struggle, pitting the rural poor against the wealthy elites who control the country's main institutions.

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Mark MacKinnon in Bangkok

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Part of the reason the Red Shirt message resonates here is historical. The Reds have taken to telling their supporters they are the "prai," or serfs, rising up against the "ammat," the aristocracy. The terms recall centuries of history, evoking the time when Chiang Mai was the capital of its own kingdom before being swallowed by Siam in the 18th century, and a vague but strong feeling that somehow Bangkok has neglected the north ever since.

"Words like 'prai' and 'ammat' make sense to ordinary people, not just in rural areas, but in cities like Chiang Mai," said Pongpan Chumjai, a Chiang Mai-based journalist who writes for the Prachatai news website. In the modern context, he said, the ammat are seen as the military who overthrew Mr. Thaksin, as well as members of the powerful privy council that advises Thailand's revered King Bhumibol.

There is also a cultural and linguistic divide between the north of the country and the rest of Thailand that feeds into the sense of us-and-them. "People in north Thailand and northeast Thailand have a different culture than people in Bangkok," Mr. Pongpan said. "They have their own dialect, and people in the northeast are culturally very similar to Laos."

There are also more practical reasons for the anger. Ms. Taywee, the radio station owner, previously ran a hotel that catered to Chinese tourists. Business started to go bad, she said, after the 2006 coup, and worse again after 2008 protests by anti-Thaksin "Yellow Shirts" that shut down Thailand's main airport. Those demonstrations helped bring Mr. Abhisit to power, and made a Red Shirt out of the 67-year-old Ms. Taywee.

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We used to fight for Thaksin, now it's beyond Thaksin. You'll see our tactics after the curfew is over. Guerrilla warfare already happens every night in Bangkok. Thanasak Suvannakul, 54

While Ms. Taywee and her radio station represent the mainstream UDD, she said there are other, more unpredictable, factions that remain only loosely under the Red Shirt umbrella and are planning what she called "vigilante" actions."

"There are very different groups of Red Shirts. We are peaceful. We fight for democracy, but we cannot accept violence," Ms.Taywee said. Part of the problem is the Reds are temporarily leaderless, with Mr. Thaksin in exile and most other key figures in police custody following last week's crackdown, which brought an end to two months of rolling protests and sporadic violence that left 85 people dead and hundreds injured.

On the western edge of Chiang Mai, outside the tiny office of Thai Red News, a more radical Red Shirt station that was recently forced off the air by soldiers, a cluster of 20 people gathered Sunday afternoon under a red flag. Though they did little but share a lunch in the shade, they spoke of violence to come.

"We used to fight for Thaksin, now it's beyond Thaksin," said Thanasak Suvannakul, a 54-year-old former travel agent. "You'll see our tactics after the curfew is over. Guerrilla warfare already happens every night in Bangkok."

While protesters were occupying strategic parts of Bangkok, the broadcast centre of Thai Red News was the scene of a copycat protest in Chiang Mai that saw the same bamboo-and-tire walls erected to keep police and soldiers at bay. As the military crackdown began Wednesday in the capital, protesters burned tires at key intersections in Chiang Mai, but scattered quickly without putting up a fight when the army moved in.

However, they appear prepared to quickly restart the protest if the order is given by whomever seizes the Red leadership. Adjacent to the radio station is a door labelled "Mini Mart," leading to what is no longer a grocery but instead houses piles of red placards, Thai flags and bottled drinking water. In front, passersby stopped to pay their respects at a shrine to General Khattiya Sawasdipol, the assassinated leader of the Red Shirt defences in Bangkok who was considered a "terrorist" by Mr. Abhisit's government.

Among those gathered under the red flag were a cross-section of Thailand's poor and angry - an unemployed maid, a travel agent whose business had failed, a woman who sold fruit juice at a street stall. One of them, 51-year-old Parichat Kanmame, said she was a Red Guard at the Bangkok protest camp, trained by Gen. Khattiya to fight the Thai army with the crude weapons at the protesters' disposal.

Ms. Parichat said she stood on the barricades in Bangkok last week and fired stones with her slingshot even as the soldiers and armoured personnel carriers advanced. "I don't know if I hit anything. I was just shooting the stones. I just wanted to fight," she recalled. She fought until the Red leadership acknowledged a few hours later that the battle was hopeless and urged their followers to flee.

Ms. Parichat said she came back to Chiang Mai because it was safer to be a Red Shirt here than in Bangkok. But, she warned, it was less safe than ever for Mr. Abhisit to come to the city. "I dare him to come," she said, laughing uproariously at the idea.

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Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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