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Thai "Red Shirts" cornered as army stifles dissent

With leaders rounded up and soldiers deployed in their rural heartlands, Thailand's "Red Shirts" have gone to ground but experts say they will regroup against the military's toppling of the government they helped elect.

BANGKOK: With leaders rounded up and soldiers deployed in their rural heartlands, Thailand's "Red Shirts" have gone to ground but experts say they will regroup against the military's toppling of the government they helped elect.

The red-clad street protest movement, established in the wake of a 2006 coup to rally support for ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, has warned that the kingdom's long-running political conflict could descend into civil war.

The Red Shirts say they have been hit hard by a crackdown since army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha deposed the Thaksin-allied government last Thursday and seized wide-ranging powers.

Several activists told AFP they have been hemmed in by a big army presence, detentions and closures of influential local radio stations used to spread their pro-Thaksin message.

"There are no leaders," said Aporn Sarakham, a former senator and the wife of Kwanchai Pripana, a hardline Red Shirt from northeastern Thailand detained by the army on Friday.

The movement's hierarchy -- from the firebrand protest leaders to local village heads -- are being held or harassed or have gone to ground to avoid detention.

"The Red Shirts do not know what to do... we have to wait and see what the army does and what our leaders in other provinces and districts say," Amnuay Boontee, a Red Shirt coordinator in Buriram province, told AFP by telephone.

Phone lines have also been cut, according to the activists. Calls by AFP to several other leading Red Shirts could not be connected.

"In our hearts we are against the coup but people are scared. All of our leaders are detained," said a Red Shirt leader requesting anonymity.

"People are sitting and talking about it, but things are quiet."

Thaksin still draws strong support in northern Thailand for his populist policies such as nearly-free healthcare, micro-loans and generous rice subsidies that satisfied the Red Shirts' burgeoning political and economic aspirations.

Parties led or aligned with Thaksin have won every completed election since 2001, most recently in 2011 under his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra.

While the Reds may for now be cramped by martial law, observers say they are likely to regroup in coming months. They foresee protests, road blocks and moves to cripple provincial governments.

Attacks by armed militant cells and a crescendo of calls for a parallel government -- a direct challenge to the army's writ over the country -- could also be on the cards.

"The chance of violence is very strong," said Kan Yuenyong, executive director of the Siam Intelligence Unit think-tank.

"I don't expect we will have a kind of civil war yet, but we will see a kind of insurgency or random violence in different areas."

An analysis by IHS Country Risk said there was a "real risk" of Red Shirt paramilitaries attacking opposition-linked commercial assets in central Bangkok.

They were also likely to block road access to various districts of the capital.

"The Red Shirts' strategy could centre around supporting a retreat by leaders of the deposed ...government to their strongholds to effectively control swathes of the north and northeast, with the military controlling Bangkok and the south," according to the analysis.

Soldiers were deployed over the weekend at anti-coup rallies in Chiang Mai -- the northern home town of the Shinawatra family. A local police source said more than 10 people had been arrested there.

Elsewhere, the army said it had arrested more than 20 people allegedly intent on a "large-scale attack" in Khon Kaen, one of the largest northeastern cities.

An army spokesman said the suspects were arrested with bombs and hundreds of bullets.

Over the weekend small, sporadic but vociferous anti-coup rallies took place across Bangkok, although the army chief on Monday threatened to take action against protesters and even their families under martial law.

Antipathy towards the establishment-backed army runs deep among the Reds.

Scores of people died in 2010 in a military crackdown on a Red Shirt rally in Bangkok, held to protest the earlier ousting of a Thaksin-linked government by a judicial coup.

Prayuth is widely seen as having played a big role in that crackdown.

Thaksin's opponents, who occupied parts of Bangkok for nearly seven months before last week's coup, want to expunge the country of the influence of the billionaire tycoon-turned-politician, whom they accuse of corruption.

Prayuth has imposed sweeping curbs on freedom of expression and political gatherings.

Senior Red Shirts were believed to remain in detention on Monday, while the leader of the anti-Thaksin protest movement was released on bail.

Despite the heavy-handed tactics and history of bloodshed, the Reds said they would not be cowed by the military.

"We are not scared. We stopped being scared of the army a long time ago," said Bird Pripana, Kwanchai's son.

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