Anti-government clashes in Thailand bring stalemate to a city and nation

Days after the Thai military launched an offensive to evict anti-government protesters from central Bangkok, the focus turns to cleanup and recovery.
By Blaine Harden
Saturday, May 1, 2010

BANGKOK -- Thailand is gripped by a drama involving an ailing king and a monarchy in jeopardy, a topless princess and a poodle named Fu Fu. It features mysterious assassins in black suits, drugs and thugs, and a billionaire former prime minister forced into exile, where he spent more than $160 million to buy a British soccer team and bankrolls thousands of protesters occupying the heart of this steamy capital city.

Seven weeks of episodic chaos have claimed the lives of 27 people and injured nearly 1,000, while scaring off tourists and infuriating commuters. It has also spooked investors in one of the best-performing economies in Southeast Asia, a bustling import-export center that has become, among other things, the second-largest market for pickup trucks, after the United States.

In the shadow of a fancy downtown mall that calls itself Thailand's "premier lifestyle shopping destination," thousands of Red Shirts, as the demonstrators are known, have brought commerce to a halt while building medieval-looking barricades out of sharpened bamboo poles.

The protesters, some of them armed, massage one another's feet, snooze sweatily in lawn chairs and make ferocious speeches about the universal importance of one-person, one-vote. They say they won't go home until new national elections are called. They have reason to believe they would win: Their rural-based party has won before, but the government they voted into power was overthrown four years ago in a military coup.

Beyond all the plot twists and colorful characters, the story of Thailand's spring of fitful discontent is fundamentally economic. After decades of economic growth, the country's rural populace thinks that the elites in the capital have selfishly hoarded Thailand's increasing prosperity.

It is a view not shared by those elites, who regard their country cousins as little more than hired muscle for the exiled former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who wants to return to Thailand and power. Those city-dwellers sometimes take to the streets to fight back, wearing competing Yellow Shirts, in what has become an unpredictable standoff with regular bouts of bloodshed.

Thaksin's Red-Shirt-supported government was ousted in a 2006 coup that had the broad support of business leaders and social elites in Bangkok. The unelected government, which is resisting the protesters' demands for an immediate election, is supported by those same urban elites.

The Red Shirts, though, have more than just the potential to win another election. Elements among them came to Bangkok in March with military muscle: rocket-launched grenades, improvised propane bombs and a shadowy force of trained fighters with military training.

The Thai army could not disperse them in an April 10 shootout that claimed 25 lives. The government and the military have since sought to contain the Red Shirts and wait them out. Leaders on both sides say the situation could spark widespread class-based civil conflict.

"The Red Shirts have tasted something that is real," said Sulak Sivaraksa, a Buddhist activist and political analyst. "They have experienced what it means to have power, and they will not be marginalized anymore."

The sticking power of the Red Shirts also raises questions about the future of the Thai monarchy. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is widely loved and has been a stabilizing figure in politics for more than six decades. But he is 82 and ailing.

The king's son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, 57, is widely disliked, and his private life has tongues wagging. A recent documentary broadcast on Australian television showed the crown prince and his wife at a birthday party for his poodle, Fu Fu. The crown princess appears topless in the video.

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