UDON THANI, Thailand- With a flurry of punches and kicks, hundreds of Thai “Red Shirts” undergo self-defense drills as they mobilize to protect the embattled government, stoking fears of a dangerous new phase of civil conflict.
While far from a battle-ready militia, the ranks of sun-weathered rice farmers brim with determination to prevent opposition protesters in Bangkok toppling Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Drawn from the poor but populous north and northeast, the Red Shirts broadly support ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra — Yingluck’s elder brother.
Their rhetoric has crescendoed over the last few weeks, matching an intensifying barrage of legal challenges that could lead to Yingluck’s removal from office.
In anticipation of her fall, the Red Shirts say they will bring hundreds of thousands of supporters to a Bangkok suburb on Saturday for a two-day rally.
The move looks likely to raise the stakes in a six-month political crisis that has left 24 people dead and hundreds wounded in grenade attacks and shootings, often targeting protesters.
A military crackdown on Red Shirt rallies in Bangkok against the previous government in 2010 left scores dead and parts of the city’s commercial centre smouldering.
The backdrop is an eight-year struggle between a royalist establishment — supported by the judiciary and the military — and Yingluck’s family, which has traditionally enjoyed strong support in the northern half of Thailand.