THE Thai new year dawned on Monday April 13th not with water fights but with live rounds and tear gas as the army moved against red-shirted protesters who last week had seized control of much of the government district of Bangkok, laying siege to Government House, the prime minister’s seat. The army had cleared at least two big junctions held by the red shirts, including the Victory monument. The army opened fire, though for the most part soldiers appeared to be aiming over the heads of the protesters, who attacked with Molotov cocktails launched from slingshots. Dozens of protesters and a handful of soldiers have been injured. In one ugly development in Phetchaburi, a Muslim neighbourhood, red shirts shot at the mosque and threw petrol bombs along a narrow shopping street. In response what seemed to be the whole community, including old women, rushed out with swords and sticks to fight the attackers.
This may mark the definitive start to an operation to clear away tens of thousands of protesters which the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, ordered when he declared a state of emergency on Sunday. By breakfast time protesters had blocked another crossing with commandeered buses and burning tires. More Molotov cocktails were lobbed at soldiers, who loaded their automatic rifles and began to advance. But then two of the red shirts asked to talk. The army officer in charge stepped forward. The conversation ended with an exchange of mobile-phone numbers, handshakes all round and an agreement for both sides to move back. “This situation hurts me here,” said the officer later hitting his heart. “I won’t order the troops to shoot. We don’t want Thais to fight Thais. How this ends is not up to us, it’s up to Thaksin.”
Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted as prime minister in a military coup in 2006, and then fled the country. Thai politics has been dominated by a tussle between his supporters and enemies ever since. From exile in Dubai he directs his red-shirted followers, known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD). In a phone message broadcast on Sunday night to the protesters camped around the government complex, Mr Thaksin declared: “Now that the military has brought tanks out on the streets, it’s time for the people to come out for a revolution.” He has promised to return and lead it.
Mr Thaksin has thus hugely raised the stakes. He senses that the failure of the police and army to deal with the protests is a sign of ambivalence. Policemen and soldiers are drawn from the same ranks of the great unwashed, country folk and the urban poor, who make up so many of the red shirts’ numbers. Mr Thaksin’s populist policies in office benefited the poor, many of whom now feel that the moneyed Bangkok elite behind Mr Abhisit have cheated the country of democracy. They demand the prime minister’s resignation.
The ambivalence was made abundantly clear on Saturday in Pattaya, where Mr Abhisit was hosting a summit of 16 Asian leaders that had already once been postponed because of Thailand’s political turmoil. Although the protesters there were few, they broke through half-hearted lines of police and army with ease. As they tore through the summit venue, the leaders were lifted from a hotel roof by helicopter and sent scurrying home, the summit cancelled. It is a huge loss of face for Mr Abhisit.
The prime minister, a 44-year-old educated at Oxford, is decent enough as opportunists go, but appears out of his depth in Thailand’s cruel and intricate politics. He may regret not having moved earlier against the Thaksin forces. He came to office last December on the back of a movement of popular protests. The yellow shirts, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), are a loose grouping of businessmen, urban middle class and ultra-royalists (yellow is the royal colour). PAD protests contributed to Mr Thaksin’s ouster in 2006. Last year fresh yellow-shirt protests helped to bring down the successor to Mr Thaksin’s banned Thai Rak Thai party. In a fine irony, the red shirts have now borrowed many of the PAD’s tactics.
As well as exacerbating class divisions in calling for revolution, Mr Thaksin is playing a more dangerous game over the rule of octogenarian King Bhumibol. Although they are supposed to be strictly above politics, members of the royal family have for long left their paw marks on politics, and appear to be sympathetic to the yellow shirts. Mr Thaksin has called for the resignation of two privy counsellors whom he says were behind the 2006 coup. Since privy counsellors serve at the king’s pleasure, the call comes pretty close to lèse-majesté in a country with draconian treason laws. On Saturday evening in the red-shirt encampment, one man loudly blamed the king for Thailand’s troubles, an act that would ordinarily mean a harsh term in jail.
Many Thais are heartily sick of the crisis and its enormous damage to the economy in terms of lost investment and tourists. Another military coup is rumoured, although it is unclear where the army’s political inclinations lie. Presumably Mr Abhisit’s days are numbered as prime minister, though who might succeed him is anyone’s guess. Mr Thaksin hopes to ride the protests and return to power. Yet with plenty of scores to settle, his would presumably be a brittle and autocratic rule at a time when reconciliation is badly needed. Fresh elections are probably the best bet, with the promise of a search for a broad political consensus for constitutional change to allow a more representative politics. For now, with violence in the streets again, Thailand teeters on the brink.