Hard to see end to Thailand's cycle of instability
Just before the start of an anti-government rally that paralyzed the heart of Bangkok four years ago, Thailand's deputy prime minister issued a stern message to demonstrators then converging on the city en masse.
"If they violate the laws, such as blocking roads and intruding into government offices," he warned on March 12, 2010, "we will have to disperse" them.
The official's name was Suthep Thaugsuban, and two and a half months later, after a week of steadily increasing violence, he followed through on that threat. Suthep ordered a crackdown that saw the army rip through the protesters' tire-and-bamboo-barricaded encampments and fire M-16s into crowds of fleeing protesters.
In 2011, Suthep's party was soundly defeated in elections. Today, he is leading a protest movement that has itself blocked roads and broken into government offices - an extraordinary role reversal that underscores not only the cyclical nature of Thai politics, but the total lack of progress toward bridging a political divide that has plagued the country for nearly a decade.
Suthep says his movement is aimed at routing out corruption he claims is endemic within Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's administration. Just like the so-called Red Shirts who seized downtown Bangkok in 2010, he is demanding the resignation of the country's government. And just like the Red Shirts, his supporters are trying to achieve that by shutting down parts of capital.
Among the places his supporters occupy is the place the Red Shirts made their last stand four years ago: Ratchaprasong, the country's glitziest intersection, where just like the Red Shirts, protesters are camping in the middle of the road, in front of a huge stage complete with speakers and a giant video screen.
"Sadly, we are back at this impossible intersection again," Atiya Achakulwisut, a contributing editor at the English-language daily Bangkok Post, wrote in a recent opinion piece. And Thailand, once more, "is caught again in a dangerous game of political brinksmanship (in which) both sides seem to believe they can win."
In 2010, the game finally ended with nearly 100 dead and more than 2,000 wounded. Scores of shops in Ratchaprasong, lined with luxury hotels and glass shopping malls, went up in a wave of arson attacks authorities blamed on demonstrators.
"Do we want to go down that road again?" Atiya asked.
Tragically, Thailand already has: Political violence since November has claimed nine lives across Bangkok and left more than 550 people wounded.
From here, the road back to stability seems long indeed.
Tensions were rekindled last fall, after a disastrous attempt by Yingluck's party to ram through a controversial amnesty bill that would have allowed her brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, to return from self-imposed exile. He was toppled in a 2006 coup that has touched off years of societal division. In 2006, he was sentenced in absentia to prison in 2008 for corruption. Critics allege he uses his sister as a puppet and runs the country from abroad, charges they both deny.
Last month, Yingluck dissolved the lower house of Parliament and called Feb. 2 elections in hopes of easing tensions, but that did not satisfy protesters, who say corruption ensures her party will win. The main opposition party has boycotted the vote.
Suthep is demanding political reform, Yingluck's resignation and the installation of a non-elected council of "good people" to govern before any ballot is held.
Even if the poll does go forward, Parliament is unlikely to achieve the quorum it requires to convene because protesters have blocked candidate registration in several provinces. That means a caretaker government would remain in place until at least some of those provinces hold elections.
Yingluck has proposed a plan for reform with another round of elections in a year, but Suthep has rejected that and refuses to negotiate. Half a dozen key Bangkok intersections remain blocked, most civil servants are working from backup offices because their own have been shut by protesters, and businesses are suffering. The threat of deeper conflict looms, but Yingluck dares not order a police crackdown for fear of triggering a military coup.
The result: deadlock.
"It's a form of attrition," said Chris Baker, a political economist who has co-authored several books about Thaksin. "The demonstrators are on the streets. They're disrupting things, but not badly. And the government is out there, still operating, but not very well."
"They're kind of staring one another in the eyes at the moment, and I think they're waiting to see who will blink first," he said.
There is growing anxiety that the army, which has staged 11 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, will step in again. Army commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has said he does not want to take sides, but he has also said the army will act if there is no other solution.
"I don't want to go back to the military's hurtful time, because in 2010 we came out to work with a pure heart ... because there were shootings against people and government offices," Prayuth said this week. "But the situation today is a different cause, a different context."
Back then, the government had the army's firepower behind it, and used it. Today, the army is widely seen as sympathetic to the protest movement, while the police are seen as backing Yingluck.
"The battle has to be fought on the street," said Parkpop Udompan, a 38-year-old rubber farmer from the south who has camped at Ratchaprasong for nearly two weeks. "There is no other way. We don't have weapons. This is the only way we know how."
The protesters, though, don't have enough supporters to bring down the government on their own. A week and a half into "Shutdown Bangkok," the crowds of protesters have diminished greatly, though they build up in the evenings and the whistles and Thai-flag paraphernalia that are symbols of the movement are commonly seen throughout the capital.
Many believe a so-called "judicial coup" will remove Yingluck. After Thaksin was ousted in 2006, controversial court rulings forced two pro-Thaksin premiers to step down.
Analysts say the courts and the country's independent oversight agencies all tilt heavily against the Shinawatras' political machine, and Yingluck is facing several cases that could end with her or her party being banished from governing because of alleged corruption or violations of the constitution.
But if Suthep, the army, or the courts succeed in installing a new government, that is only likely to trigger a new cycle of unrest. The Red Shirts are likely to return to Bangkok. Protests and violence are likely to ensue.
"We've been through this so many times, it's become ridiculous," said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "If one side takes power, the other side will oppose it."
Despite nearly a decade of upheaval, Thailand's political rivals have moved no closer to overcoming their differences.
On the contrary, they have become "much more radicalized, much more polarized," Sunai said.
"I keep scratching my head, asking myself how we can overcome it. But we need to begin by understanding there are differences, by trying to figure out how we can live together" he said. Problem is, "nobody is talking."