Worst may be yet to come in deepening Thai crisis

BANGKOK Tue May 18, 2010 5:15am EDT

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BANGKOK (Reuters) - Five days of chaotic street fighting. A rising death toll. Unrest spreading to rural heartlands. A prime minister who won't back down. Protesters willing to fight to the death.

Thailand's political crisis has lurched from festive anti-government rallies in March to violent gun fights in April to full-scale urban warfare in May, but experts say the worst may be yet to come as thousands of troops struggle to restore order.

"The fact that so many people have died without the army having gained much ground seems like a rather ominous sign," said Federico Ferrara, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore.

"Having already started opening fire on civilians, journalists, emergency medical personnel, and generally everything that moves, the difference between 50, 100, or 200 deaths is just a number on a piece of paper."

The government blames those killings on unidentified shadowy gunmen allied with the protesters, adding to the fog of uncertainty over the bloodshed.

The death toll -- 37 killed and 266 wounded since Thursday -- has shocked Thailand as much as images of parts of its capital reduced to a battleground. Most analysts say British-born, Oxford-educated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva won't last long.

Whether he resigns depends on whether this operation ends in heavy losses. At the moment, that's a strong possibility.

Neither side is backing down.

Even if Abhisit disperses the crowd, his political prospects look uncertain, dimmed by weeks of bloodshed that includes 25 people killed and more than 1,000 wounded on April 10 when troops tried but failed to end protests in Bangkok's old quarter.

Most had expected more progress by now.

While the military has finally established on Monday a thin cordon of troops around the 3 sq km (1.2 sq mile) encampment the "red shirts" have occupied the past six weeks, it remains porous. Many red shirts are circumventing army checkpoints to join the rally, navigating small streets, witnesses say.

The second and most difficult task -- dispersing a crowd of about 5,000 in the barricaded area -- hasn't even started, and the government says it has no immediate plans to do so.

BROADER CIVIL CONFLICT

As troops get closer, the severity of the fighting -- snipers, grenades, petrol bombs, automatic guns -- is stirring talk of a wider civil conflict that has simmered below the surface for years, broadly pitting the urban poor and rural masses against Thailand's powerful royalist establishment.

This poses plenty of risks. If the army fails to quell the unrest, other fissures in Thai society could flare into the open, pushing the crisis dangerously close to a long-discussed and much-feared tipping point toward a mass underclass uprising.

The police, instead of stopping it, could fuel it.

Police have long been sympathetic to the protest movement and its figurehead, ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, a graft-convicted populist billionaire and former policeman revered by the rural masses and reviled by middle classes who celebrated his ouster in a 2006 bloodless coup and subsequent self-exile.

The military itself is rife with splits.

Large numbers of soldiers of lower ranks and some senior officers who have been sidelined after Thaksin was toppled sympathized with the protesters, while the military's top brass are at the other end of the political spectrum, allied with royalists and business elites.

Complicating matters is the silence of the country's sole unifying figure, revered 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The world's longest-reigning monarch famously diffused Thailand's last major political crisis -- a 1992 middle-class uprising against a military ruler.

After a deadly crackdown, the king brought the rival leaders prostrating before him and reprimanded them. With a few words, a deadly crisis was over.

Not this time. Hospitalized since September 19, the king rarely appears in public. When he does, he hasn't addressed the crisis. Strict lese majeste laws make commenting on him difficult.

"The political divide is increasingly hard to bridge. Hardliners are gaining ground and moderates are being squeezed out," said Viengrat Nethito of Chulalongkorn University.

"The king as a traditional conflict resolver and figure of moral authority is in hospital. That leaves few with enough credibility and moral authority to do the job of moderator.

"Many of the country's elders have been discredited, polarized, politicized, and pulled to one end of the political spectrum or another. That leaves no one, or no strong enough institution, to moderate the larger conflict," he said.

With no peacemaker, the risk of unrest is growing in the north and northeast, a red shirt stronghold, home to just over half of Thailand's 67 million people. Scattered signs of unrest have erupted in recent days. The government has imposed a state of emergency in a quarter of the country to keep order.

RURAL MASSES

Without major reforms to a political system that protesters claim favors the elite over rural masses, there's little chance of stifling the anger that has erupted into violence in Bangkok.

Abhisit has offered a national reconciliation plan but has come under fire for failing to build political support to revise a military-written constitution that overtook a 1997 charter seen as Thailand's most democratic constitution.

Analysts say the longer the fighting goes on -- with troops opening fire on demonstrators fighting back with petrol bombs, slingshots and grenades -- the weaker Abhisit looks, and the more alienated he becomes even by his own supporters.

"His position has been in jeopardy since he ordered the crackdown," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"He will go down in the Thai history as a leader who ordered the killing of the people, even when it meant saving the country -- and his own power position."

If pushed aside by his powerful backers, he would likely be replaced by a coalition partner deemed acceptable to the public in a caretaker role. That would do little to resolve the problem, potentially inciting more protests and strengthening the case for immediate polls the protesters' allies would likely win.

That political victory could bring big changes, including the ousting of generals allied with Thailand's royalist elite, a prospect royalists fear could diminish the power of the monarchy -- and one Abhisit's backers would fight to stop at all costs.

"Even if the protestors are dispersed, which obviously will eventually happen, the underlying social tensions and political tensions will not have been resolved, and they will come up again," said Josh Kurlantzick of the U.S-based think tank, Council on Foreign Relations.

"It's a fallacy for the government to think they can just crush this."

(Additional reporting by Martin Petty; editing by Bill Tarrant)

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