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Inside Bangkok's Red Shirt 'fortress'

 
BANGKOK, Thailand -- The anti-government Red Shirts now occupy a huge swath of this city's luxury shopping and hotel district.

Five-star hotels have been emptied of guests. Empty malls, usually packed with the city's middle class, now sit in ghostly silence, most doors boarded or locked, the roads beside them a sea of red.

The NBC bureau is in a building within this "red zone," and to walk outside is to enter something resembling a country fair. Traditional northern Thai music, the upbeat rhythms of Isaan, blares from a large stage, relayed through a series of speakers and video screens around the zone.

The faces of the protesters in the heart of the zone are mostly those of craggy, middle-aged farmers, as they line up for pungent Isaan food. The road in front of our building is usually one of the most congested in the city. Now it's lined with tents and stalls, selling everything from food and drink to cellphone chargers, clothes and souvenirs, even flip-flop shoes with pictures of their nemesis, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Other stalls offer massage: tough, elderly ladies pounding the legs of weary protesters.

Image: Red Shirt barricades near the financial district
Watch Ian's video from the streets of Bangkok.

"The government is unfair. It's unfair. There are double standards," one man told me, a popular refrain among the protesters, who are demanding the immediate resignation of the government and new elections.

 There've been in Bangkok for six weeks now and have vowed to stay put until that happens.
The access roads have been barricaded with trucks, tires and sharpened bamboo sticks, manned by black-clad "security men." The biggest barricade faces a junction at the mouth of Silom Road, Bangkok's financial and entertainment district, home of Thailand's biggest banks, as well as the notorious Patpong bar area.

In spite of Thursday's deadly explosions in this area, that killed one person and injured scores more, Western tourists were out today, snapping photographs of riot police and Red Shirts. Heavily armed soldiers are camped in a walkway above the street, their sights trained on the Red Shirt camp across the junction.

Security talks
The government says five explosions were caused by grenades fired by "terrorists" inside the red zone. The Red Shirts deny that, blaming provocateurs, possibly within the army.

Today, the prime minister was engaged in a series of security meetings. The army has warned it will use lethal force to clear the red shirts from the center of the city, but there appeared to be little sign today of an imminent crackdown, and the anti-government protesters -- well entrenched and well organized -- have managed to stay a step ahead of the government.

Image: Riot police in Bangkok's financial district

Thai security forces on the streets of Bangkok. Photo by Ian Williams, NBC News

The government is encouraging a pro-government "no color movement," which held a big rally across town this evening to demand the end of the protest. There have already been clashes between the rival groups, with a real danger of further mob violence.

Thailand has always been the master of fudge, with an uncanny ability to muddle through. This time it's harder to see an easy way out.

Image: Anti-government protesters lock arms in front of  barricades

Slideshow: More images from unrest in Thailand