BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's U.S.-trained military has a new enemy and is now hunting northern separatists who want to seize most of this Buddhist-majority country, create a Lanna People's Democratic Republic, and expel Bangkok to a shrunken South Thailand.
The military is warning Thais not to demand independence in the north because such "treason" and "sedition" could spark a bloody civil war. "Separatism is a severe offense," said army deputy spokesman Col. Winthai Suwaree.
"Expressing differences in opinion is permitted under the constitution, but expressing the need to separate the country is not," Col. Winthai said.
"The separation talk is especially shocking because, for the first time, the idea the country can be physically hacked up...along the political fault lines has been openly discussed," said Atiya Achakulwisut, a Bangkok Post editor.
Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, stung by allegations that she sympathized with the separatists, said on March 3, "We want to see Thailand as one and indivisible."
Hoping to distance her government from the separatist issue, Ms. Yingluck met leaders of the armed forces on March 4 in her capacity as defense minister.
During the Defense Council meeting at the Royal Thai Air Force headquarters in Bangkok, Ms. Yingluck reportedly advised the military that the separatist issue should be tackled without creating fresh problems.
The agricultural north and its provincial cities provide much of the low-wage labor exploited by Thailand's farms, factories, sex industry, construction, transport and other service sectors.
Alienation by northerners is "the development of another imagination, that perhaps doesn't see Bangkok as the center of things," said David Streckfuss, a respected American author and political commentator based in the northeast's Khon Kaen city.
"Bangkok is finally awakened to the fact that it is not the center of the world."
Many prosperous residents in pampered Bangkok "look down on people in the rest of the country," Mr. Streckfuss said.
Those divisions worsened in 2006 when the military staged a bloodless coup and toppled Ms. Yingluck's popular brother Thaksin Shinawatra from the prime ministry.
In response to the coup, the siblings' angry colleagues began describing their majority supporters in the north as betrayed "slaves" and "serfs" who needed democracy restored.
Today, Ms. Yingluck's backers portray the army, right-wing royalists, Bangkok's middle-class and old money "aristocrats" as sinister forces trying to also oust her government, limit voters' rights, and again install dictatorial technocrats.
Ms. Yingluck meanwhile faces a possible collapse of her government either from upcoming criminal and constitutional court decisions, or the financial effects of anti-government protests, blockades, boycotts, occupations and sporadic street clashes which began on Oct. 31, killing 23 people.
Frustrated by the confrontations, a rogue handful of her northern supporters recently suggested abandoning Bangkok's political treachery and resurrecting a mighty Lanna "Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields" which sprouted 750 years ago and peaked in the 15th century.
Part of that lost Lanna kingdom was later absorbed into northern Thailand where inhabitants now proudly commercialize their distinct "Lanna culture" for tourists.
But recently, a few banners appeared hanging above highways, stating: "Thailand has no justice. I want to separate to be a Lanna country."
Maps of Thailand, chopped in half, were published in local media and on Internet, accompanied by debates about "separatism."
A caustic editorial cartoon on the Nation newspaper's website on Wednesday (March 12), showed Mr. Thaksin clutching a fake passport from the "People's Democratic Republic of North Thailand".
Ms. Yingluck and her main supporters insist the military is panicking and misinterpreting fringe and satirical expressions about separatism.
Others suspect the army is intentionally exaggerating the issue to weaken the government and intimidate its supporters.
Bangkok's anti-government protesters -- hoping for a military coup -- are suddenly using the separatist issue as a rhetorical weapon against Ms. Yingluck to destroy her popular image.
Led by anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, they warn the separatist issue proves Thailand needs to immediately remove her elected government.
To bolster their claim, the military and their anti-government allies point to the official name of Thailand's northern communist neighbor, the Lao People's Democratic Republic.
In Thai language, it is called Satharanarat Prachatippatai Prachachon Lao -- commonly abbreviated as Sor Por Por Lao.
When a handful of radicals displayed banners and headscarves with the abbreviation Sor Por Por Lanna, the military said that abbreviation means a separate Lanna People's Democratic Republic.
Politically powerful Army Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, and his younger brother Third Army Commander Lt. Col. Preecha Chan-ocha, quickly began hunting anyone expressing support for that cause, and have already named names.
Gen. Prayuth told governors in the north and northeast to monitor rallies and groups for any separatist activities or sympathizers.
The military "has seen movements that might mislead the people, especially the Sor Por Por Lanna group," Lt. Col. Preecha said.
The army filed petitions with police during March asking for the arrest of Wutthipong Kachathamkhun, also known as "Ko Tee," for allegedly advocating separatism and other violations, army deputy spokesman Winthai Suwari told reporters.
Mr. Wutthipong is an outspoken leader of powerful Red Shirt activists who support Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, but he apparently was acting on his own.
Mr. Wutthipong allegedly hoisted a banner from a pedestrian bridge in Bangkok, illustrated with a photograph of himself wearing sunglasses and a beret, and captioned: "Ko Tee, the Red Guard."
The banner "said people should go to live in separate parts of the country if they could not get along with each other," the Bangkok Post reported.
He surrendered to police on March 7, reportedly acknowledged the banner was his, but denied wanting to separate Thailand.
He said the banner was a sarcastic statement to highlight the military's "bias".
Mr. Wutthipong was referring to the army's enthusiastic hunt for alleged separatists, while the military declines to help police arrest leaders of the anti-government protests in Bangkok, including Suthep Thaugsuban who is dodging warrants for "insurrection" and "emergency decree" violations.
The army also filed a complaint with police in Thailand's second biggest city, Chiang Mai, against Phetchawat Wattanapongsirikul for
alleged separatism and other crimes.
Mr. Phethchawat is a top member of the Red Shirts' Rak Chiang Mai 51 group, which is influential in the northern city but considered too radical by some other groups.
He allegedly put a banner across a pedestrian bridge in Chiang Mai which read: "We want to separate as Lanna country," said the 33rd Army District's information chief, Col. Phokha Jokloy.
The abbreviation Sor Por Por Lanna is also used differently by an academic think-tank, established in December, which supports democracy
and denies any separatist intent.
The think-tank is called Samatcha Pokpong Prachatippatai Lanna, or Lanna Assembly for the Defense of Democracy, and they fear the military will wrongly target them.