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Thailand’s fraying at the top

By Roberto Herrera-Lim

The on-the-ground situation in Thailand is changing quickly at the moment, and unrest could persist for quite some time. Red shirts are building forts out of spears and rubber tires in the middle of Bangkok's commercial district. Anti-Thaksin yellow shirts are threatening to take back the streets. Multicolored shirts are demanding that the government take a tougher stand on the red shirts. But one thing's for sure: The key elites that have -- for better or worse -- dominated Thailand's political landscape appear to be as incoherent and uncoordinated as they have been in decades in dealing with the polarization in the streets. That's why, regardless of the near-term outcome of the current crisis, the prospects for long-term stability are weak.

The so-called red shirts, anti-government demonstrators who support former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, now in exile, have occupied parts of Bangkok for the past 25 days. Clashes between protesters and security forces have so far killed at least 26 people and injured more than 1,000. Their numbers have dropped in recent days, though some red shirts in the countryside have reportedly removed their colors to pass undetected through military checkpoints as they enter the capital looking for a fight. The protesters have demanded early elections; the government has refused. In short, the government is close to a point of no return.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej offered the clearest signal yet on Monday that Thailand stands perilously close to serious bloodshed. With his first public comment on the unrest that has plagued his country for the past month, the ailing 82-year old monarch appeared briefly on national television to call on a group of the country's judges to "do the right thing" in maintaining law and order. The monarchy has been deliberately vague in the past, to fulfill its perceived role of guiding the country while maintaining an apolitical stance. Unfortunately, the long-awaited message from the king did not directly address the protests themselves, a sign perhaps that the monarch, hospitalized for the past seven months, fears he no longer has the clout to back the red shirts down.

Meanwhile, the military leadership, while still nominally on the side of the government, has hemmed and hawed on how to best deal with the protesters on the streets, maybe a sign of some hesitation on the part of army commander Anupong Paochinda to take responsibility for what will likely be a bloody crackdown so near his September retirement. It also reflects some doubt on the part of senior commanders on whether the lower ranks will hold in the worst case scenarios; talk of watermelon soldiers ("green on the outside, red on the inside") is rife. For this reason, Anupong may be trying to hold off some of his more conservative deputies, who believe that Thaksin, and by extension the red shirts, should be removed from any political equation.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, British-born and Oxford-educated, has raised alarms of "terrorist behavior" by the red shirt protesters, and wielded the royalist flag by claiming that the current crisis involves a "plot to overthrow the monarchy." Normally, the test for a leader hit by a crisis that, on its face, has the support of significant segments of the population, would test his mandate through elections, rather than revert to bogeymen.

And finally Bangkok may no longer be the elite's stronghold. Some local residents have taken to the streets, many under cover of darkness, to give aid and comfort to the red shirts.

Ominously, the government's warnings are based on assumptions that the old relationships will work, and that the key players can deliver the government from the red shirts, either by outlasting them or beating them back. Maybe the government's strategy will work. If the king's call for calm can help restore order, as it did during anti-establishment protests in 1973 and 1992, serious bloodshed can be avoided. Or the red shirts, many of them poor, will fade away as their resources wane. His government might then survive another few months, but the divisions will remain, and the center of power will continue to fray. In this case, the red shirts will simply return to fight another day, and the next protest, the next round of volatility, will only be a matter of time.

Roberto Herrera-Lim is an Asia analyst at Eurasia Group.

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