Nong hu Ling: Its brilliant green rice paddies, thatched-roof huts and overgrown jungle resemble most rural villages in northeast Thailand. But the red sign looming over a quiet dusty road in the community of Nong Hu Ling is something different.
"Red Shirt Village for Democracy," it reads, proclaiming its allegiance to the red-shirted, anti-government movement whose protests paralyzed Bangkok last year and sparked a bloody military crackdown that ended with 91 people killed and hundreds of activists arrested.
"After what happened in Bangkok, people were scared to wear red shirts," said Kongchai Chaikang, chief of Nong Hu Ling, a village of 350 people in Udon Thani province, about 450 km (280 miles) northeast of Bangkok. "They feared they would be harassed by police or followed by plain-clothes officers. We want to give them courage by sticking together."
The idea is catching on. Ahead of a July 3 national election, dozens of rural communities are branding themselves a "Red Shirt Village" in this poor northeast plateau, home to a third of the country`s population, giving the movement grass-roots muscle to mobilize behind its parliamentary allies, the opposition Puea Thai Party.
The mostly low-income red shirts broadly support ousted populist premier Thaksin Shinawatra in a five-year political conflict against the traditional Bangkok elite that includes top generals, royal advisers, middle-class bureaucrats, business leaders and old-money families who back the ruling Democrat Party.
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 phenomenon underlines the government`s failure to pacify opponents ahead of an election many fear will deepen the divide between the urban and rural poor on one side and the elite on the other, a rift that drove Thailand close to full civil conflict last year.
The villages and their defiance also highlight the failure of a year-long national reconciliation effort, heightening concerns that the losers of the election will not accept the results, a tangible risk in a country scarred by 18 coups since the 1930s and five years of sporadic unrest.
The polarization comes at a delicate time with Thailand`s unifying figure for six decades, 83-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, hospitalized for nearly two years. The military and supporters of the establishment often invoke his name to rally the public against the red shirts, dragging the monarchy into the political melee.
In the balance is Thailand`s well-crafted image as "The Land of Smiles", a catchphrase that crumbled last year under a catalog of horrific scenes: banks on fire, military snipers firing on demonstrators, mysterious black-clad gunmen rallying behind protesters, grenades exploding in the business district, and free-wheeling Bangkok reduced to 9 p.m. curfews.
The red shirts have launched about 50 red villages in the past two weeks alone, said Anond Sangnan, the UDD`s secretary-general in Udon Thani. Last week, they inaugurated five at once in Udon Thani`s Sam Prao sub-district.
"After we lost last year, we decided we would fight this battle differently," he said at the launch of one village, whose Buddhist leader marked the occasion in a ceremony in which red string was tied to the wrist of each villager in a symbolic show of strength.