BANGKOK, Thailand -- Two Thai faces appear behind the sharpened bamboo poles and hundreds of car tires which form lengthy menacing barricades, now stinking of urine, rotten food and other debris, along Bangkok's busy downtown streets.

The face of British-born and Oxford-educated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, hated by the thousands of Red Shirts behind the barricades, is plastered all over their occupied zone.

His eyes are cut out, or reddened along with his mouth to make him appear ghoulish, on handbill-sized posters which place him above photographs of three corpses.

A bullet hole punctures the center of one man's forehead. Another dead man is wrapped in Thailand's red-white-and-blue national flag on a gurney. A third man lays in the street with a chunk of his bloodied head missing.

They were among the 25 people killed, and 900 injured, when Abhisit and the military failed to crush the Red Shirts on April 10.

The other face behind the nine-foot (three-meter) tall barricades is of the authoritarian Thaksin Shinawatra, who won three elections before being toppled in a 2006 military coup.

Nicknamed "Square Face" for his distinct facial features, Thaksin is adored by many Red Shirts because of his pro-poor policies.

Thaksin's photos show him smiling, cheering them on, as their wealthy master of ceremonies.

The Red Shirts demand a nationwide election because the coup destroyed the previous poll's results.

The Reds expect their candidates to win, allowing the probable return of Thaksin from self-exile, amnesty for his corruption convictions, and return of his 1.4 billion US dollars in family assets seized by the government.

That would be a nightmare for Abhisit and especially the military, who promoted some officers loyal to their coup and demoted others perceived as Thaksin's allies.

A Red Shirt victory at the polls would undo the coup and restructure the political, military, social, and economic landscape of this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation, which is a staunch non-NATO US ally.

Some Reds want to put the generals and their "puppet" Abhisit on trial for the April killings and the coup.

Other Reds demand a "class war" against Thailand's "aristocrats."

But unlike most protests during the past 50 years, there are not many portraits of Massachusetts-born King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 82, among the thousands of Red men, women and children behind the barricades.

Many Reds enthusiastically profess their love for the king, who is widely hailed on all sides.

But his portrait is conspicuous by its absence in the Reds' sprawling, makeshift encampment which stretches for several blocks across more than two square miles (three square kilometers) of expensive real estate, flanked by luxury shopping malls, five-star hotels, offices, embassies and other upmarket buildings.

Portraits of the king have instead been appropriated by the Red Shirts' arch enemy, the Yellow Shirts, who angered the world in 2008 when they blockaded Bangkok's two airports and stranded 300,000 passengers worldwide for eight days.

The Yellow Shirts proclaim themselves as "royalists" and favor a government made of only some elected politicians, and packed with appointees.

The Yellows were allies of generals who staged the coup, and both groups said they had to obliterate Thaksin's elected government to protect the king from an alleged murky conspiracy.

Critics said the military simply wanted to cash in on lucrative weapons contracts, secretive budgets, and other income, and launched the coup when Thaksin began removing some top generals.

During the past few years, the military along with anti-Red politicians and Thailand's pliant media, have convinced many Thais that the Reds and Thaksin oppose the monarchy -- a charge they repeatedly deny.

In Thailand, it is a virtual kiss of death for any person to be labeled -- true or false -- an opponent of the king.

Wheelchair-bound King Bhumibol is in a Bangkok hospital where he has been undergoing treatment for various illnesses since September 19.

As a constitutional monarch, he is officially "above politics," but has spoken out during past clashes when Thailand's protesters, politicians, and military battled in the streets.

In May 1992, when a military junta shot dead dozens of pro-democracy demonstrators in Bangkok, the king met army leader General Suchinda Kraprayoon and protest leader Chamlong Srimuang.

The two admonished men followed royal protocol, kowtowing in a "kraab" position at the monarch's feet.

Their appearance, broadcast on TV nationwide, cheered most Thais, brought peace, and resulted in the resignation of General Suchinda.

"In 1992, during the May events, I think His Majesty's role was critical, crucial, vital," Abhisit said at a news conference three months ago.

"And his role was within the constitution, nothing above the constitution, but it was only possible because of His Majesty's leadership and the reverence that Thai people have for His Majesty.

"Now what I'm saying is that it would be better if we could all resolve these issues without having to rely on His Majesty's interventions, even though they are always within the framework of the constitution," Abhisit said.

Today, many Thais hope the monarch can convince both sides to end their confrontation, but the polarization is much different compared with 1992.

General Suchinda and Chamlong were strong monarchists, and indeed Chamlong now leads the Yellow Shirts against the Reds.

In contrast, Thaksin appealed to the king to have his two-year jail sentence, for financial crimes, be pardoned, but that has met with silence.

Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who leads the biggest opposition party -- the Red-friendly Pheu Thai Party -- recently asked to meet the king, to request the monarch's intervention to ease the confrontation. Chavalit was denounced by Abhisit and others who said it was not appropriate to use the monarch in a political way.

On April 26, the king gave a speech, broadcast nationwide, while swearing-in a group of court judges.

Similar to previous such ceremonies, he urged judges to be fair.

The king is cloaked by harsh lese majeste laws, and courts have put people on trial and sent some to prison for vague, indirect, misunderstood, blunt or accidental comments interpreted as critical of the monarchy.

As a result, few Thais or foreigners based in Thailand publicly discuss the monarchy's role. On April 24, meanwhile, Abhisit rejected the Red Shirts' compromise for Parliament to be dissolved in 30 days, followed by an election 60 days later.

Earlier during their protest, which began on March 12, the Reds demanded "immediate" elections. Five grenades exploded on April 22 in Silom Road, where an anti-Red crowd threw rocks at the nearby barricades the night before.

The apparent revenge grenade attack hit early evening commuters, anti-Reds, and tourists, killing one person and injuring 88 others.

Officials suggested the M-79 grenades were fired from a shoulder-mounted launcher behind the barricades, but the Reds denied involvement.

The Reds have attracted army officers who offered help in urban warfare tactics, amid reports of splits within the military about promotions and demotions.

"Some of those involved in the deadly attacks are still in the military," Army Commander-in-Chief General Anupong Paojinda said on April 24.

More than a dozen unexplained grenade attacks during recent weeks have damaged banks, electric pylon lines, and a jet fuel tank which supplies Bangkok's international airport.

The barricades, meanwhile, are being strengthened by the hour, amid possible plans to set it ablaze if the military attacks.

Bamboo spikes are "a very ethnic rice-storage house," said Red supporter Diaw Chulalongkorn. "The sharpened points keep the wild pigs out."

***** Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of Hello My Big Big Honey!, a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is

(Copyright 2010 Richard S Ehrlich)