Thai anti-government protesters hold a placard of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother Thaksin at a protest in central Bangkok. (Nyein Chan Naing/European Pressphoto Agency)

For four months, Thailand has been convulsed by a political fight over a former prime minister who hasn’t even set foot in the country since 2008.

On Saturday, the nation dared to hope there might be a break in the conflict.

A top anti-government leader said he was drastically scaling back demonstrations in the capital, where protesters have blocked off downtown intersections, pitched tents in front of luxury malls and called for the prime minister’s downfall. At least 20 people have been killed in gunfire, grenade explosions and clashes with police since the movement’s rise in November.

Still, the demonstrations will continue at a single site. The protest leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, characterized his move as a simple change in tactics and vowed to “reach the end game” this month.

The protests take aim at Thailand’s most divisive figure, Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecom billionaire who served as prime minister from 2001 until 2006. During that time, Thaksin lifted millions in the countryside from poverty with spending programs. But he also elbowed aside the dominant Bangkok elite, concentrating power in a group of cronies and family members while browbeating institutions that went against him.

In doing so, Thaksin challenged a centuries-old power balance, creating new tensions between Thailand’s mostly rural north and a more urban group of power holders. Even if Suthep’s protest movement fades, those tensions remain unresolved and could spark renewed clashes.

Thailand has long stood apart in Southeast Asia, never communist, never colonized, and it has developed a turbulent brand of democracy — one often interrupted by bloodless coups. But the latest turmoil is particularly worrying because Thailand’s revered king, long seen as a guarantor of relative order, now appears too old to intervene. The fear is not so much a coup but the division of the country.

An anti-government protester carries a doll with a picture of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the word “tyrant” attached to it. (Christophe Archambault/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

“There’s no mediator,” said Suphachai Jaismut, a deputy secretary general of a small Thai political party that has in the past formed coalitions both with Thaksin and his opponents. Suphachai nodded at a portrait of King Bhumiphol Adulyadej, 86, who has ruled for the past six decades.

“It’s a street fight,” Suphachai said.

That street fight has left the country paralyzed.

Protesters say that Thaksin, in between rounds of golf, runs the country as a puppet master from his home in Dubai, using his sister — the current prime minister — as a proxy. So opposed are the protesters to Thaksin, they interfered with an election last month that would have presumably returned his sister to power. Until the election is completed — and there’s no guarantee it will be — the sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is a mere caretaker. She is unable to sign off on government projects. Thailand is without a legislature.

Thaksin was at the United Nations eight years ago when tanks rolled into Bangkok in a coup. But Thaksin’s overthrow only emboldened his supporters. From his exile in Dubai, Thaksin has reestablished his political party and created a career for Yingluck, whom he once described as his “clone.”

Thaksin avoids Thailand, where he faces a two-year jail sentence for graft, and instead trots around the world, often to Hong Kong and Cambodia. Suthep, the anti-government leader, said in an interview that government officials and police chiefs who want high-level appointments must pay a visit to Thaksin. Suthep launched the street protests in November for a simple reason: Thailand’s lower house, heavy with Thaksin supporters, tried to ram through an amnesty bill and bring him back home. Those efforts were then stalled by the nonpartisan Senate.

The proposed amnesty bill applied to anybody facing political charges from a rancorous period between 2004 and 2010. Still, the bill was seen by opponents as evidence that the Thai government was serving one man.

“We have come to the point where we want to get rid of Al Capone,” said Kasit Piromya, a former Thai foreign minister and ambassador to the United States.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra leaves the Thai Air Force headquarters after a cabinet meeting in Bangkok. (Wason Wanichakorn/Associated Press)
Prepared for a coup

Anti-government protesters shout slogans demanding Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra step down. (Wally Santana/Associated Press)

Thai police officers prepare to march forward in an attempt to push back anti-government protesters. (Manjunath Kiran/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

At its height, the protest movement drew 200,000 people, but it dwindled in recent weeks amid the violence. On Saturday, anti-government protesters retreated from their blocked-off Bangkok intersections and assembled at a park normally filled with joggers and sunbathers. The next move in Thailand’s struggle is difficult to predict, with both the protest movement and the government weakened substantially.

The protest movement “blocked seven intersections for several months, and it did not produce a result,” Somkiat Onwimon, a former member of Congress who has spoken at some of the protests, said Saturday. “So Suthep might have thought all this was going to be in vain.”

“But after all this, I don’t think either side has the upper hand,” Somkiat said.

The protests often had the trappings of a party — noisemakers, colorful T-shirts, free plates of curry — but demonstrators shared a sense of anxiety. They were bureaucrats, middle-class urbanites, even the wealthy, people used to having the ear of politicians. And now they feared they’d lost it.

But the weary demonstrators say this is not just about losing privileges. Thailand squanders about 35 percent of its government spending on graft — more than twice what it did before Thaksin came to power, according to the National Anti-
Corruption Commission. The country’s most important institutions, once weak but nonpartisan, have all taken sides, some packed with Thaksin loyalists, others full of traditional civil servants. The courts, for instance, tend to go against Thaksin. The police strongly support him; Thaksin was once an officer.

For all their concerns about corruption and autocratic government, though, the protesters have managed to squander their international support. They have asked not just for the withdrawal of the amnesty bill but also the dissolution of an elected government. When Yingluck agreed to hold new elections, the protesters, knowing their favored Democratic Party couldn’t win, cordoned off polling stations.

“There’s no moral high ground at all,” said Sunai Phasuk, a Bangkok-based senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

An anti-government protester raises his arm as he listens to Suthep Thaugsuban’s speech. (Sakchai Lalit/Associated Press)

The protest leader has his own history of corruption scandals. A former deputy prime minister, Suthep, 64, also faces murder charges for green-lighting a deadly military crackdown on Thaksin supporters in 2010. He has called for reforming the country using a small council of unelected elites.

Thailand’s stalemate will probably be broken not with an uprising but rather a judicial decision that either paves the way for completing the elections or ousts Yingluck. Given the leanings of Thailand’s courts, Yingluck is vulnerable, facing a corruption probe for an ill-conceived rice-buying scheme.

In addition to the more than 20 killed, some 700 have been injured in the street clashes. Those numbers could soar, Thais fear, when either side gains a clear upper hand. If Yingluck is forced from power, rural northerners could welcome her to that region as the rightful prime minister.

“Should there be any coup, we should divide the country,” said Cherdchai Tontisirin, who represented the northern city of Khon Kaen in parliament until January. “We’re well prepared for that.”

A wanted man

In northern Thailand, Thaksin is worth defending for a basic reason: He made people here feel cared for, seen. In the past, Thai politicians had largely ignored the rural areas. But Thaksin became leader, and towns soon had paved roads and cheap medicine. “Farmers used to have to sell their buffaloes to go to the hospital” because of the cost of treatment, said Jakapong Sancum, a DJ who lives in Udon Thani. “Now they just pay 30 baht,” or $1.

Supporters of Shinawatra come from rural areas, which were largely ignored until he came to power. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Thaksin’s defenders have stayed away from the main protest sites, fearful of bloodshed, but they’ve found other ways to provoke.

Kwanchai Sarakum, 62, who runs a pro-Thaksin radio station in the north, decided in early January to raise 500,000 baht ($15,000) as a bounty for Suthep’s arrest and printed up “wanted” posters — the kind of stunt pulled from a Western movie. The offer, though, was real: Kwanchai planned to give the sum to any officer who put the protest leader in handcuffs. He raised the money in two weeks.

But on Jan. 22, while Kwanchai sat on his front porch, a Toyota pickup truck rolled down the street. Gunmen sprayed more than 40 bullets, snapping the bones in Kwanchai’s right arm and injuring his leg.

If the attack showed the threat of violence posed by the political crisis, it also demonstrated the real power of the former prime minister. Thaksin called the local police and ordered them to investigate, Kwanchai’s friends say.

And so two weeks after the shooting, more than a dozen police returned to the scene of the crime, brandishing a wiry
39-year-old who said he had been hired by people in the south. The alleged gunman, holding an unloaded weapon, showed how he had popped up from the back of the truck and fired off the rounds.

Thaksin-friendly media had been tipped off to the show and did live stand-up in front of Kwanchai’s house. A trailer-sized banner on Kwanchai’s property served as the backdrop. It read: “I give my world to Thaksin, my only boss.”

Voravit Chansiri contributed to this report.