Rebellious Thailand

Deadly clashes between government forces and ‘Red Shirt’ opposition activists are pushing Thailand to the brink of civil war. Over the past week, Bangkok has been convulsed in violence. Grenade blasts and exchange of gunfire have left at least 25 dead. An assassination attempt on General Khattiya Sawasdipol, better known as Seh Daeng, a renegade army general-turned- protest leader has further worsened the crisis. Seh Daeng has many enemies — in the government, the army and among Bangkok’s businessmen. Sections within the opposition too have distanced themselves from his radical, hardline positions. Despite his unpopularity, should he lose his life, Bangkok will erupt in anger. For several months now, the Red Shirts have been demonstrating, sometimes violently, to press for dissolution of parliament and fresh elections. A fortnight ago, it seemed that a solution was in sight. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva put forward a reconciliation roadmap, which provided for fresh elections in November. The opposition accepted the offer in principle. Compromise appeared to be within reach, raising hopes that the worst was over. But such hopes were dashed when the two sides failed to agree on who should be held accountable for the deadly crackdown on protestors in April that left 19 people dead. All talk of reconciliation and timetables has now been thrown aside, with both sides digging in for more confrontation.

It is said that with his political roadmap discarded by the opposition, Prime Minister Abhisit is now determined to pursue an all-out military solution. Bangkok has been under a state of emergency. It is likely to go under curfew soon. There is a danger that this will ratchet up violence levels further.

The possibility of a military coup cannot be ruled out. Thailand’s military has never been averse to assuming a political role. Since 1932, the country has experienced 18 coups or attempted coups. There are sections within the military that will be contemplating a coup now, perhaps as a short-term measure to restore order. But this is no solution to the crisis. The political divide in Thai society has gripped the military as well. A coup on behalf of one side could therefore trigger counter-coups. Abhisit is reaching for the military to bail him out of the current crisis. This is unwise. He is extending legitimacy to an expanded role for the generals in the country’s politics.

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