Three hours after a government deadline to vacate their campsite in the middle of Bangkok’s glossiest shopping and hotel district, anti-government Red Shirt protesters remained defiant.

“I’m here for democracy,” said Peter Siriya, a 33-year-old from Samut Prakan Province. Like many of the other Red Shirts, Siriya comes from up country, and says he is disgusted by the recent bloodshed in Bangkok.

Thirty-seven people have died since last Thursday, in street fighting at several locations around the main rally site. The Red Shirts have set up another stage on a highway beyond the main area, countering the army’s drive to blockade the main rally area.

But Monday’s 3pm deadline has come after tough talk and tougher action by the Thai army, which has fired live rounds on unarmed protesters. Five journalists have been injured in recent days, in what is a volatile and unpredictable situation.

Protesters are throwing petrol bombs and burning tyres to create a smokescreen, hindering the line of fire for much-feared snipers prowling high-rise buildings overhead. The city is braced for an all-out battle for control of the protesters’ main rally site.

The protesters are bankrolled by telecoms billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who they say helped improve living standards in the rice-growing north and north-east, where the village life is a far cry from the high-rise, traffic-choked, 24-hour lifestyle in Bangkok, a city of 15 million people. But the protesters have shed their peaceful self-image, lobbing grenades at troops, and manned by a squad of still-unidentified black-clad gunmen.

The Thai government and other protesters known as Yellow Shirts say the Red Shirts are pawns in a high-stakes power play by Thaksin, who is a fugitive from Thailand where he stands accused of corruption while in office. Yellow is the colour of the country’s monarchy, which officially sits above politics.

But the reality is that Thailand’s divisions are premised on a power vacuum, with the current King now 82 year’s old, in hospital since last September. He has reigned since 1946, and has stepped in to pour cold water on previous conflicts in Thailand.

Something dramatic and decisive is needed now to avert more bloodshed, as Thailand’s polarised political drama turns into bloody tragedy.

Peter Fray

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