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Leading article: At the edge of the precipice

There can be no doubting the seriousness of the situation in Thailand. Not only is there a real possibility of the stand-off between the army and the protesters escalating into a bloodbath that could spread to the rest of the country. There is also the sense that the confrontation in Bangkok reflects a division within the Buddhist kingdom that can no longer be contained, even if descent into total violence is averted this time.

On previous occasions the eruptions have been quelled either by army coups or by the intervention of the King, the 81-year-old Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose position and personal standing have been such as to force the combatants to withdraw in the interests of stability.

It is still possible that either course could now resolve the situation, at least in the short term. The army, having been initially hesitant to join the fray, has now committed itself to clearing central Bangkok of the protesters, even at a considerable cost of life. At the same time the King, although in declining health, remains a force which could bring the parties together, should there be the will to do so.

Neither of these forces are as strong as they were, however. The army itself is unsure at the top as to how far and how fast to proceed against a civilian uprising which its lowly-paid conscript soldiery may be reluctant to fire on. The police are standing aside. The King is clearly ailing and has tried to keep out of recent political disputes for fear of making the crown appear partisan.

If this were a simple battle between the rich and the dispossessed, pitting the forces of democracy against autocracy, as some would suggest, the issues might be clearer and the course more predictable. But it isn't. The Red Shirt protesters would claim the need for new elections and the return of the ousted former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, as a road to a democratic future. But Thaksin himself is as much a representative of the old, corrupt elites as the present government, as opposed by many of the middle and educated classes for his furthering of nepotism and billionaire's populism as he is loved by the rural poor for his subsidies and grants.

With descent into chaos now facing both sides, there remains some hope that the worst can be avoided. The protesters are now mooting talks. The army is still hesitating. The King could still use his authority to impose a compromise. It is to be hoped so, for without a return to talks and a change in direction by army and protesters, Thailand is staring into the abyss.