Gareth Price: Even if the protests can be ended peacefully, Thai society will remain polarised

The escalation of violence in Bangkok in recent weeks gives the impression that the conflict between rural poor and urban elites is reaching an end. In some regards this is true; it is difficult to see how the current situation in Thailand's premier business district can continue for much longer. But it is much harder to see how this conflict can be reconciled in the longer term.

Outside mediation, probably by the United Nations, provides the best hope for a peaceful solution to the current stand-off. Agreeing that the demonstrators can avoid prosecution, coupled with the promise of elections, may be the starting offer from the government. Whether the government would agree to immediately resign is less certain, and the opposition demand for the prosecution of the deputy prime minister will almost certainly prove a step too far.

But even if a peaceful short-term agreement could be found, the polarisation of Thai society will remain. Fresh elections without a reframing of politics will simply highlight that schism. The king's ill-health and the unpopularity of the Crown Prince have meant that traditional deference for the monarch among the rural poor has been reduced. His power to facilitate compromise is now limited.

A military solution could also resolve the situation. This would undermine Thailand's international standing, and make the Red Shirts more hardline. There are increasing indications though that there are splits within the military. Many regular troops come from similar social backgrounds to the Red Shirts.

Thus far, the conflict has not spread outside Bangkok. But one-third of Thailand is now under emergency rule. That includes Bangkok, as well as in the South where there is an insurgency involving ethnic Malays. While protests could spread, there is a logic for the focus on Bangkok. The Red Shirts comprise those who feel excluded from the benefits of development; their enmity is focused on Bangkok, where Thailand's wealth, and the beneficiaries of its growth, is concentrated.

Countries within South-east Asia have expressed increasing concern regarding the situation in Thailand; in recent months a series of border clashes have broken out between Thailand and Cambodia. This presents a severe test for Asean, the Association of South East Asian Nations. Were Asean able to act, it would be a shot in the arm for the organisation. But few would bet on such an outcome.

The problem now is that the protests have an impetus of their own. The former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose supporters are among the demonstrators, is clearly not in charge; his pleas for calm were largely ignored by the hardline protesters. The government, and Thailand's elite, will have to make some tough choices. They will need to reassess the distribution of political and economic power in Thailand, and accept that bottling up divisions (or cracking down on protest) does not provide a long-term solution.

In the event of a massacre in Bangkok, the international community is likely to impose such a solution. The hope is that the government works this out before it is too late.

Gareth Price is the Head of the Asia Programme at Chatham House

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