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Thailand: Muddle through or military coup?

Thailand: Muddle through or military coup?
Published 16 May 2014   Follow @elliotbrennan

Anti-government protesters on Ratchadamnoen Road. (Photo by the author.)

On Tuesday, in the skies above Bangkok, a storm was brewing. The humidity was oppressive. As I entered the protest area the tap turned on, and in true Southeast Asian fashion  a downpour started, sending the large crowd of protesters scurrying to secure the tarps over their makeshift tent city.

The previous day, Yellow Shirt protesters had returned to the streets from their former base of Lumpini Park.  Not satisfied with the ousting of PM Yingluck Shinawatra, Yellow Shirt protest leader Suthep Thaungsuban has called, again, for a 'final' push (he's said it eleven times in the last six months) to install his proposed  unelected 'People's Council' that would lead reforms, including those against corruption in government.

On Wednesday night, gunfire and an M79 grenade was launched at Yellow Shirt protesters camped on the street. Two people were killed and 24 wounded. The attack led Army Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha to give his strongest warning yet, saying that if violence continues, the army will 'in full force' maintain law and order. This could be in the form of martial law or an all-out coup.

The Red Shirts have also arrived in large numbers, setting up camp in Bangkok's western suburbs. But they have traveled considerable distances from all around the country (mainly its north and northeast), so they are unlikely to leave quietly without first making their presence felt in Bangkok proper. In fact, the United Front for Democracy, a Red Shirt organisation now under the control of a more aggressive leader, has explicitly stated that it will march on the capital. He has also warned of civil war.

The Yellow Shirts, emboldened by their recent victory in the courts, can smell victory. They have come out in strong numbers along Ratchadamnoen Road, the protest area running about 1.5km along the main road. The location of their protest site, near the Democracy Monument (a historic rallying point for regime-toppling protests), close to Government House and the Royal Military General HQ, is an indication of their belief in this being a final victory push. The Yellow Shirts may even welcome a coup that topples the current caretaker government. [fold]

In the protest area itself, the majority are everyday women, men and children of all ages. But others are combat hardened men from the country's embattled south, where they have been fighting religious extremist insurgents (with the focus on Bangkok, Muslim separatists have made several counter-attacks in the south, with 30 attacks on Monday further highlighting the country's woes). Other reports indicate that at least some elements of the Red Shirt group are armed.

Thailand has muddled through this crisis for six months now and chances are it will muddle further. The military is divided, with much of the lower ranks supporting the Reds and the upper echelons the Yellows, and there is little appetite to seize power. 

But General Prayuth has now drawn a red line, and there is increasing pressure from businesses and investors who want a return to business-as-usual. Pressure is mounting. While the country's economic fundamentals remain stable, they will come under threat in the second half of the year as investor confidence falls and the government budget evaporates. The revered King, who stepped in to halt a similar crisis in the 1990s by making the two parties kneel before him on national television, still commands the respect of both parties in this conflict and may be able to call a halt to violence. Yet he is ageing and the succession of his throne is a divisive issue that threatens the monarchy's future power. The military with the King's blessing may offer the best chance to bring an immediate halt (or more likely a suspension) of violence.  

A coup is a quick fix that may not stick and won't solve the political polarisation plaguing the country. For some it is becoming more palatable as the crisis draws on. It may allow the 20 July elections, opposed by the anti-government camp, to take place, though even if elections do go ahead, the newly elected government would likely be weak and would face the same familiar polarisation.

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