In Udon Thani, red villagers resist
As we drive down to the village, about 20 minutes from the provincial capital of Udon Thani, 42-year-old Kamsaen, wife of village headman Korngchai Chaikang, complains about allegations that their village is a training site for anti-monarchist armed militants.
"They should show us evidence. Yesterday, we were visited by Isoc people," she said, referring to the Army's Internal Security Operations Command. "They came to repair [two] houses, yet even after completing the job, they kept coming back. It's not normal having the Army come to the village so regularly."
This is how life at Ban Nong Hu Ling in Udon Thani province has changed since foreign and local media publicised it as being the Kingdom's first self-designated "Red-shirt Village for Democracy".
Korngchai, 44, who is driving his grey pick-up truck, interjects: "I asked why they kept coming back so many times, and one said he had fallen for a local girl."
Korngchai does not look convinced.
"The district chief and his deputy also visited us. Plus, we get about three to four phone calls every day. It's bad. It's like we're being harassed," Kamsaen continues. "These actions prove that the military is meddling in politics."
As we get to the village, we see a big red sign. On it, ousted, convicted, fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, the de-facto leader of the Pheu Thai Party, greets us with a broad smile. The sign declares: "Red-shirt Village for Democracy". On December 15 last year, this community of mostly poor rice farmers was declared a red village.
A photo of the couple in front of the sign is quickly snapped. The village headman points out that many red flags in front of villagers' homes have been removed after the authorities "requested" them to do so.
"The district chief asked us to remove them but some households refused nonetheless," said Kamsaen. "They can't stop us from being red."
We soon pass one of the two houses recently repaired by the Army. I notice that a brand new portrait of the King and Queen is attached to the equally new exterior wall of the house. It is not shielded from the sun or rain and very visible from the roadside, so I ask house owner Thongbai Walpat, 76, about it. She says the picture came part and parcel with the repair job by the Isoc Army officers.
As we arrive at Korngchai's house, he produces a two-page memo from theArmy detailing the visit and handover ceremony of the two repaired houses, which was attended by the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news team and local media, just a few days earlier. I scan through the paper and one line catches my attention. On June 14, between 1.20pm to 2.20pm, the document stated, the Army visitors were to "meet with people and study their socio-psychological state".
"They handed this document to me. I don't know if they were trying to test me or something," Korngchai says.
"How can we be amicable to them when they tell us to remove the red flags," his wife protests.
Korngchai then explains why the village, like hundreds of others in Udon Thani and elsewhere, has declared itself red. He says that after the April-May suppression of red-shirt protesters in Bangkok and elsewhere, his son was arrested and detained for alleged trespassing and disturbance in front of Udon Thani provincial hall, which was allegedly burnt down by red shirts. He says that many red shirts are living in fear and have very low morale.
"Some burnt their red shirts. Others buried their [red-shirt] CDs. So we declared the village red to announce that we won't fear the power of the state."
One female villager who joins our conversation says that she feels sad that the village is now being accused of being a training site for armed militants. "We just want justice," said Sompart Chin-kham.
Kamsaen insists that another allegation, that red shirts aim to abolish the monarchy, is not true. She says red shirts merely want to make sure the palace and politics are kept apart.
With his son and 20 others still in jail without bail over a year after the incident, the village headman hopes the fact that many homes have removed the red flags would help them win others' sympathy.
But with a general election taking place very soon, the two say they think there could be an extra-constitutional intervention from the so-called "invisible hand", or another military coup, despite their firm belief that the Pheu Thai Party will win convincingly.
If people accept yet another military coup, Kamsaen says with a laugh, "it means that people in this country are stupid."
Her husband, wearing an Udon-red-shirt polo shirt and red jacket, adds that he believes the "invisible hand" will more likely intervene in the background. Either way, Korngchai predicts, "the damage will be felt throughout the country."
The couple have had to answer many enquiries from the Army and the authorities, with one of the crucial questions being whether local people organised and designated their villages as red by themselves or not.
The answer was "yes".
I tell them that perhaps that gives the authorities all the more reason to be paranoid.