Duncan McCargo: Thailand is deeply fractured and anarchy has come closer


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Thailand has reached a profound impasse. Previously, street protests have culminated in a violent suppression and a military coup d'état – as in October 1976 – or a direct royal intervention, as in May 1992. Neither of these are easy ways out for the country today.

In the past, military coups have generally been tolerated by many and there has never been sustained grassroots resistance to a coup. The tens of thousands of Red Shirt protesters, mainly supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, are singularly allergic to another coup – after all, Thaksin was ousted in a coup in 2006 – and have indicated a determination to resist any army-led putsch.

Indeed, protesters have shown unprecedented disrespect for the armed forces, dismantling armoured personnel carriers and staging demonstrations outside military bases. The army is not accustomed to dealing with such signs of incipient insurrection.

Nor is this a promising time for the monarchy to make a move. The 1992 intervention – in which prime minister Suchinda Kraprayoon and protest leader Chamlong Srimuang were instructed by the King to put an end to their differences – could not be repeated today. The monarchy cannot ultimately bring about reconciliation, but only supports or endorses an emerging trend or consensus. Thailand is so deeply fractured that the fault-line between colour-coded pro-government Yellow Shirts and anti government Red Shirts runs through practically every household in the country.

Neither the pro-government royalist forces nor the anti-government pro-Thaksin forces are going away any time soon; each side is backed electorally by up to 40 per cent of the population. Only a hard-headed deal making some accommodations to Thaksin's supporters could pave the way for a return to normalcy in the Thai capital.

The shooting of rogue general Khattiya Sawasdipol, better known as Sae Daeng, was the second unsolved political assassination attempt since the latest round of anti-government protests began in Bangkok a few weeks ago.

On 10 April, Colonel Romklao Thuwatham, a rising star and hardliner in the military, was killed by a sniper at the height of redshirt demonstrations. Romklao had been responsible for suppressing a previous round of redshirt demonstrations in April 2009. The finger of blame was pointed in the direction of a small, shadowy force of "ronin", or men in black, linked closely to the Red Shirt movement.

The assassination attempt on Sae Daeng, though still murky in origin, could be explained as a punishment not just for his aggressive leadership of the redshirts, but also for his unproven involvement in attacks on other military officers and targets.

However tempting an alternative, extra-judicial killings such as the attempted murder of Sae Daeng will only lead to further destabilisation and bring the threat of anarchy even closer.

The writer is professor of South-east Asian politics at the University of Leeds

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