BANGKOK (AP) — An ex-Communist guerrilla, a one-time teen idol and a militant known as "Rambo" spearhead a surging peasant movement that claims to espouse democracy but pledges allegiance to a billionaire accused of gutting Thailand's democratic institutions.

Something doesn't seem to check out here.

Such strange bedfellows and mixed messages make the so-called "Red Shirts" hard to read despite their six weeks of endless rhetoric, peaceful marches and bloody confrontations that have brought the Thai capital to its knees.

Nobody now doubts the power of the red-clad protesters, mostly drawn from the poor rural masses. Derided as country bumpkins by critics, the superbly organized activists have outmaneuvered the government they seek to oust at every turn, and with stones and bamboo staves routed units of a 200,000-strong army in several encounters.

Even if authorities manage to reverse the crimson tide, there is a prevailing sense that the battle for Bangkok will prove a watershed event in the 78 years since Thailand overturned absolute monarchy and began an often painful odyssey toward democracy.

"Thailand is entering a new political landscape. Recent developments strongly suggest the anti-government forces are yearning to rebuild Thai society and make it more equal. Thailand has long lived in a fairy tale world," says Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asia Studies.

What shape this landscape takes will depend in part on the true colors of the Red Shirts.

There is the cynical view: The thousands of protesters are mere pawns in a bid by ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, their paymaster, to return to power after being ousted in a 2006 military coup and found guilty of corruption.

The Red Shirts, this view goes, are far less interested in democracy than a return to what they say are the "happy, prosperous times" that the underprivileged enjoyed thanks to cheap health care, debt alleviation and other populist policies initiated by their hero Thaksin.

After funding the protests and returning to Bangkok from exile, the telecom-tycoon-turned-politician would revert to the authoritarian style, corruption and cronyism that were the hallmarks of his tenure. The road to democracy would be again be barricaded.

"Thai politics is still personalistic. The rank-and-file members are optimistic that if Thaksin is allowed to come back, or at least pull the strings behind a (pro-Thaksin-led) government, the populist policies will return as well," says Michelle Tan, researching rural Thai politics at the National University of Singapore.

There is another perspective: The movement has gone beyond Thaksin and some of its leaders may not even want him back in town, having tasted power and faced bullets while Thaksin ate caviar and brokered big business deals abroad.

"Thaksin's role becomes more and more irrelevant. When the Red Shirts moved through the streets, they were not primarily struggling for the return of Thaksin, but for a greater share in ruling the country," says Tyrell Haberkorn a political scientist at The Australian National University.

What Thaksin did do was spark a sea change in attitude among the rural folk, who long were doled out a tiny slice of the economic pie and centrally dictated policies that affected their lives but over which they had little say.

Exactly what policies and even tactics the Red Shirts plan to pursue are not entirely clear, beyond their immediate demand for a dissolution of Parliament, new elections and the ouster of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, an Oxford-educated urbanite who to them symbolizes the ruling elite.

There are clearly differences among the more than half dozen prominent leaders. They include suave former government officials and rough, tough figures who have led violent demonstrations, like Suporn Attawong, an ex-lawmaker known as "Rambo."

Another is Arisman Pongruangrong, a 1980s pop singer who — in a scene out of slapstick comedy — last week escaped from a hotel surrounded by police by scaling down a rope into a getaway car while supporters cheered.

Others were student activists who struggled against rightist regimes in the 1970s, fleeing into the jungles to fight alongside the Communist Party of Thailand.

Some exiled supporters have even called for the abolition of the country's still widely revered constitutional monarchy — which critics have suspected Thaksin of also seeking.

Dr. Weng Tojirakarn, a key protest leader, vehemently denies that Thaksin or the Red Shirts want to end the centuries-old institution, but say they want the king to be above politics.

"I have a dream: a genuine democracy with the monarch as head of state, like the Japanese or English model. Why not?" Weng said in an interview inside Bangkok's Red Shirt-occupied commercial district.

"Myself and a lot of people, we are not crazy about Thaksin, we don't cling to him, but we require a good, a genuine, democratic system. It's taken too long. It's taken my country 78 years."

Weng, one of those who fled to the communist side in the 1970s, called for greater education opportunities for rural children, the elimination of the notorious loan sharks in rural areas, and an end to rice and rubber monopolies that have led to low prices for farmers.

The movement, which he said would not morph into a political party, also wanted to restore and amend the reformist 1997 Constitution, end favored treatment of the elite by courts and "deconstruct the aristocratic system."

Such notions of equality, he said, were now crystalized, especially among those who have attended the two dozen political schools set up by the Red Shirts in the provinces and Bangkok.

Many agree.

"One and all now appreciate that reforms to deal with inequalities have to be implemented," says William Klausner, an author and expert on Thailand's rural society. But he expresses concerns over how these will be carried out.

"Without democratic values and institutions, supported and checked by civil society, authoritarian models of one stripe or another will prevail," he says.

"The genie of a more active, assertive, confrontational and less deferential rural persona is out of the bottle and there is no reasonable expectation it will ever return to be capped," Klausner says. "As long as inequalities persist defiant challenges to authority will continue, and disorder will be the norm and not the exception."