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Is Thailand on the Brink of Civil War?

As conflicts between two political groups threaten to tear Thailand apart, its ailing king may not be able to keep the country together.
 
 
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“It don't matter if you're black or white.” So goes an old Michael Jackson song that resonates now in American politics (and on American Idol). But in the current political crisis in Bangkok, it still matters very much, possibly to the point of civil war, if you wear red or yellow.

According to Thai police, up to 40,000 anti-government “red-shirt” protesters have scattered around the Thai capital, blocking roadways and entrances to upscale shopping malls. A few days earlier, in the nearby beach town of Pattaya, they managed to scare away leaders attending the Asian economic summit and attack Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s own convoy, causing injuries to several members. The prime minister barely got away. His declaration of a state of emergency was only met with more riots by the red shirts. They only began to break up when thousands of soldiers moved in.

Many of these red shirt protestors were trucked in from rural areas. Fierce supporters of exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawsastra, who was ousted in 2006 when he was traveling abroad, and charged with corruption in absentia, the protestors are now threatening to bring down the economy as well. Foreign investors are driven away by the unrest and tourism, already suffering from Thailand’s instability, is predicted to sink even further.

Yet, less than six months ago, it was the “yellow shirts” who owned the streets. Members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), they wore yellow to honor Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Representing a more urban population – in many ways the educated and bourgeois class -- the yellow shirts blocked the airport for days and stranded nearly 250,000 tourists.

The yellow shirts were incensed when a pro-Thaksin prime minister was popularly elected into office when the general election was held in December 2007. In effect, the yellow shirts disagreed with the election, claiming fraud. The constitutional court, under pressure to get the country moving again, agreed with them and disqualified the pro-Thaksin prime minister.

The trouble was that there was no clear evidence of fraud. In fact, Thaksin himself won the election fair and square before he was ousted by the military three years ago, with tacit support from the king. Many observers predict that he would win again were he to return and run in a fair election. A populist, the former prime minister made great strides among the rural population, provided education and jobs, and brought many out of dire poverty. Charges of corruption aside, his growing base in the countryside rivals that of the affection the people have for their king.

This leads to the issue of civil war, or something close to it. Since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, it has experienced many coups and counter-coups. Yet its monarchy holds enormous power, providing much needed constancy and balance. King Bhumibol Adulyadej played the central role in a pivotal moment in Thailand’s transition to a democratic system. In 1992, when the country came to a standstill in an unprecedented crisis due to pro-democracy protests, he summoned the leaders of the two opposing parties, and both men appeared together on their knees in front of the king in a televised event -- which soon led to a free election.

But that routine may no longer work. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 81 years old and ailing. His heir apparent, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, has been perceived by many as the wrong choice and doesn’t carry the same gravitas and respect as his father. Whether the monarchy is relevant or even helpful in restoring balance to the current crisis is debatable.

Worse still, Thaksin is threatening from abroad that it’s time “for the people to come out in revolution."

"And when it is necessary,” he stated, “I will come back to the country.”

Those are dangerous words. Thaksin’s statement promises a political scenario that goes beyond the world of coup d’etat. What the shape of that revolution may entail is hard to envision, but it may very well lead to unending strife between the yellow and red shirts that could unravel the kingdom, forcing its citizens to choose sides, and eventually erode the monarchy itself.

Once the envy of its neighbors – Vietnam, Laos, Burma, Cambodia and Malaysia, which suffered under colonial rules – Thailand alone in Southeast Asia developed independently and in peace. But the tourist Mecca of Southeast Asia has lately shown its grimmer side, one that it can no longer keep under wraps.