Not since the military's massacre of students in 1976 has Thailand been so fractured. That massacre – a still sensitive topic from the country's coup-littered recent history – was part of a crackdown on left-wing students amid fears of a Communist takeover. Now the opposing forces stand divided over one man, the ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawtra, and his populist policies.
On one side stands the ruling parliamentary coalition, the leading military faction, the King's Privy Council, and anti-Thaksin groups. On the other is the opposition coalition, disgruntled junior and retired military officers sidelined by the dominant military faction, and the Red Shirts' "People's Army," which includes multitudes of rural poor ideologically awakened by Thaksin's populism.
From March to May, the Red Shirts showed they were a force to be reckoned with by standing their ground in sometimes violent demonstrations against the government. The pressure undoubtedly compelled the Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, to compromise with the proposal of an early election in November. The refusal of the Red Shirt leaders to unconditionally accept this offer was the last straw for the government and military, which prepared for the crackdown.
It was a brutal end. Last week there were calls from some to bring in the United Nations to resolve the conflict – a proposal not taken up by the Abhisit government. Any UN intervention might only have led to the conclusion that Thailand had degenerated into some kind of shadow state, where its ability to control the situation were gravely in doubt.
The implications of the crackdown are not encouraging. While the demonstrations in Bangkok were quelled, uprisings are accelerating in other parts of the country. Such volatility suggests that Thailand could have a civil war. The only institution which has grown in power during this deadlock is the military, thus, Thailand will most certainly see the expanded political role of the armed forces. The importance of the pro- or anti-Thaksin mobs will grow. And finally democracy may well erode in Thailand as elected government becomes a side issue to the growing importance of mobs and soldiers.
Thailand is entering a dangerous period. Each side is bracing itself as the reign of the ailing monarch – who has brought stability to the country through dangerous times – comes close to an end. Unless each side starts to make serious overtures toward reconciliation, the country's immediate future may be dark.
Dr Paul Chambers is a senior research fellow specialising in Thailand's armed forces at Heidelberg University, Germany