By Aubrey Belford
HUA KHUA, Thailand (Reuters) - Squatting on flat feet, their faces drawn with exhaustion from harvesting rice, Chantee Sanwang and Nang Laor still had the energy to tussle over who loathes Thailand's anti-government protesters more.
"I really hate them," said Chantee, a rail-thin 65 year-old grandmother with teeth stained red by betel nut.
Nang, also 65, refused to be outdone. "I want them dead," she countered, sending both into wheezy hysterics.
As thousands of largely middle-class Thais flood Bangkok streets in protests aimed at overthrowing the government of the populist Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, one volatile factor has been largely absent from the streets: the red-shirted protesters who helped bring her to power.
But in the background, the red shirts remain a potent force, despite being hobbled by a bitterly divided leadership and the atrophy that comes with more than two years of their side being in power.
In interviews with Reuters, red-shirt leaders and members said they are avoiding direct confrontation with anti-government protesters, which would likely provoke bloodshed. But they are marshalling their forces, just in case.
Like the province it sits in, Udon Thani, the village of Hua Khua is part of the rural north and northeastern heartland that is the support base of Yingluck's Puea Thai Party and her self-exiled brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed as prime minister in a 2006 military coup.
Hua Khua is one thousands of communities that movement leaders call "Red Shirt Villages". These days, this means little more than one tattered office bearing Thaksin's image. But support here for the government runs high.
Love for Thaksin stems from pro-poor policies during his time in power, including easy credit and near-free healthcare. More recently, his sister's government has maintained support with a rice subsidy scheme, which has been derided by the opposition. The economy in the northeast grew 40 percent between 2007 and 2011, nearly twice the national average.
There are some signs support may have slipped a little. A survey by the Isaan Poll Project, run out of the city of Khon Kaen, found Puea Thai's support in the northeast dropped from 80 percent after her 2011 election to about 64 percent in the third quarter of this year.
Support for the opposition Democrats has stayed low.
Perhaps most importantly, residents bridle at what they see as the Bangkok elite's condescending belief that the Thaksin camp has been able to win every election since 2001 by simply buying votes.
"This is about respect," said Thasadaporn, a rice farmer who goes by one name. "The law says that if you get elected, you get a four-year term."
So far, Thaksin's supporters have stuck to a policy of showing their strength while avoiding the kind of violence that could potentially trigger military intervention.
Red shirts have been bussed in their thousands for regular rallies at Rajamangala Stadium, in a Bangkok suburb far from the government buildings being targeted by their opponents. A major gathering is planned for Saturday evening.
"We don't want to have any reaction between the two groups. We're trying to keep our people from that color," said Tida Tawornseth, the chairwoman of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), the largest red shirt group.
The red rallies have been limited in size by the fact that the rice harvest is now on, tying up much of the protest muscle in the fields, leaders and members say. But if the crisis drags on, and harvest time ends, that should no longer be a factor.
"We don't want the anti-government protests to stop just yet," said Paritporn Hongthanithorn, a leader of the Red Shirt Village Committee, which oversees Hua Khua.
"Keep it going," she said, as if to address her opponents. "We'll see you there."
Another key factor holding back the red shirts is their own deep internal division.
Splits have emerged over the willingness of some leaders to pursue political careers under the Puea Thai banner.
The UDD also suffered a rift with Yingluck after Puea Thai proposed a broad-ranging amnesty bill that would have quashed a two-year corruption sentence against Thaksin, paving the way for his return.
Although the bill would have freed jailed UDD members, it would also have dropped murder charges against anti-Thaksin leaders accused of ordering a 2010 crackdown that killed scores of red shirts. Both sides opposed the bill, which has now been shelved amid the protests.
Disillusionment with Puea Thai has led some red-shirt figures to meet over the last year to discuss establishing a new, non-Thaksin party for the movement. Nothing has come of it yet.
Even in Hua Khua, the effect of division is visible. The Red Shirt Village movement, launched in 2011, has already split into three factions, Paritporn said. Of the three groups, hers is the only one on speaking terms with the UDD leadership.
Up the road in the provincial capital, Udon Thani, is one person Paritporn is not on speaking terms with: Kwanchai Praipana. He leads the biggest local pro-Thaksin group, People Who Love Udon, which is separate to the UDD.
Kwanchai styles himself as a true Thaksin loyalist and was a supporter of the amnesty bill. But perhaps contradictorily, he is also a critic of red shirts who have joined the Puea Thai government.
"The people have seen so many red shirts have taken positions in the government. It makes them feel these people are not fighting for democracy but fighting for themselves," he said.
Combined with the rice harvest and the general difficulty of organizing protesters to support, rather than oppose, a government, Kwanchai estimated he is able to marshal about half as many protesters as he could in 2010.
Kwanchai sent hundreds of his supporters to Bangkok earlier in the week, but was barred from going on stage by the UDD leader, Tida. She accuses him of being an opportunist who has attached himself to Thaksin for his own benefit. He reckons she wants to steer the movement down the dangerous path of opposing Thailand's revered monarchy.
In spite of the division, Kwanchai is still sending his people to the main rally in Bangkok.
And if the current protests trigger a coup, or the judiciary forces Yingluck from power, the trickle will turn into a flood.
"It will be chaos," he said, repeating himself for emphasis. "It will be chaos. Definitely."
(Editing by Robert Birsel)