Thai Red Shirt leader accuses junta of looking for a 'fight'

Jatuporn Prompan (centre), the leader of the Thai opposition "Red Shirts" movement, speaks with his supporters at the Criminal Court in Bangkok on Jan 28, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Jatuporn Prompan (centre), the leader of the Thai opposition "Red Shirts" movement, speaks with his supporters at the Criminal Court in Bangkok on Jan 28, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (AFP) - The leader of Thailand's opposition "Red Shirts" on Thursday accused the junta of trying to provoke them into a "fight" as the movement falls under suspicion for a bomb attack and the circulation of a forged document on the revered king's health.

The Red Shirts are loyal to the toppled government of Yingluck Shinawatra, who was banned from politics last month by the junta-picked National Legislative Assembly.

The group - who fall under the umbrella of the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) - has been a powerful force in Thailand's near-decade of sometimes deadly political turmoil.

But the movement was winded by last May's coup and has, until now, softened its rhetoric as martial law blankets the country, stifling debate and banning political gatherings.

Police this week arrested a Red Shirt member, Krit Buddeejin, on suspicion of defaming the royal family after he was accused of spreading online a hoax report on the health of ailing 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

But Red Shirt chairman Jatuporn Prompan defended 25-year-old Krit, saying he had believed it was a genuine palace statement and did not intend to harm the monarchy, which is protected from criticism by a draconian law carrying up to 15 years in jail.

On Monday, Thailand's junta leader Prayut Chan-Ocha said a minor bomb blast near a Bangkok shopping mall on Sunday was the work of opponents to the coup - although he stopped short of directly blaming the Red Shirts.

Speaking on Red Shirt television, Jatuporn accused those in power of using the two incidents to provoke a reaction.

"I don't believe that you (junta) want reconciliation, instead you want chaos and want us to go out and fight," he said on Peace TV.

"There is no reason for Red Shirts to take part in either case since we do not benefit from either incident," he said, adding the group are loyal to the king.

His comments come as anger simmers among the Red Shirts who fear their movement is being eviscerated by politically motivated legal moves, nine months after a government they helped elect was swept aside by the coup.

The political ban on Yingluck, the sister of billionaire self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, rules her out of an immediate political comeback in the next election, which the junta says it wants to hold by early 2016.

She now faces criminal charges linked to a botched rice subsidy scheme which was welcomed in the poor, rural Red Shirt heartlands.

Last week Jatuporn was bailed after receiving a two year jail sentence for defaming a former premier in comments made in 2009.

Thailand has been riven by bitter political divisions since 2006, when Thaksin Shinawatra's government was ousted in another coup, again backed by the Bangkok-based royalist establishment.

They despise the Shinawatras - whose parties have won every election since 2001 - accusing them of poisoning Thai politics with corruption and cronyism.

Prayut says the junta is steering much-needed reforms to the political system, including the crafting of a new constitution to curb corruption and populist politics.

But critics say the coup is a pretext to destroy the Shinawatras' political network and weaken the electoral clout of their rural base.