June 9, 2011 / 2:09 PM / 8 years ago

Thai army chief raises concern over 'red shirt villages'

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s army chief expressed concern on Thursday over a move by communities in the rural northeast to brand themselves “Red Shirt Villages” in solidarity with a “red shirt” anti-government protest movement.

Anti-government ''red shirt'' protesters wear hats with pictures of toppled premier Thaksin Shinawatra as they pray during a rally at Ratchaprasong intersection at Bangkok's shopping district May 19, 2011. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha said a military inquiry by the 2nd Army Region into some 200 “Red Shirt villages” showed “they were mostly meant only as a political expression or political affiliation.”

“We would like people to consider whether this is an appropriate thing to do. Even though it is not illegal, it has raised questions about the social implications in the country from assigning colours to villages,” he told reporters.

His comments follow a Reuters report on Tuesday that showed numbers of red villages were on the rise despite the arrest last year of hundreds of red-shirt leaders in the wake of clashes with the army in Bangkok in which 91 people were killed in the worst political violence in decades.

At least 320 villages in the provinces of Udon Thani and Khon Kaen have designated themselves “Red Shirt Villages” through regional offices of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), as the movement is formally known.

The red villages are seen as sign that the movement, popular mainly among the rural and urban poor, is becoming better organised and more likely to mobilise behind its parliamentary allies, the opposition Puea Thai Party, ahead of July 3 general elections.

The red shirts broadly support ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand’s five-year political conflict against the traditional Bangkok elite of top generals, royal advisers, middle-class bureaucrats and old-money families who back the ruling Democrat Party.

The red shirts accuse the Bangkok establishment and top military brass of breaking laws with impunity — grievances that have simmered since a 2006 coup that overthrew Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon-turned-prime minister who is revered by the poor as the first politician to have addressed their needs.

Thaksin’s image beams from red signs at the entrance to the red villages. His sister, Yingluck, a 43-year-old businesswoman with no political experience, has improved in opinion polls since her May 16 nomination to lead the opposition.

“Thailand, and Thais should have only one colour — the colour of our national flag signifying the nation, religion and monarchy,” said Prayuth. “Designating different colours has given us problems that we see today.”

Reporting by Vithoon Amorn; Editing by Jason Szep and Daniel Magnowski

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