The ongoing stand-off between the Thai government and red-shirt protesters (supporters of the exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra) appeared to have come to a precarious end when a deal was struck earlier this week. However, within days the government withdrew the offer to hold elections and the protestors clashed again with security forces in Bangkok. The situation was exacerbated when a renegade army officer was shot as he was being interviewed by a reporter from the International Herald Tribune.
With the city centre under siege, and foreign embassies closed, the Thai military is trying to systematically clear the area of protesters. The Bangkok city authorities have shut off electricity and water supplies in a bid to dislodge the protestors from their camps. The location of these camps in major tourist and business areas is deliberate: the leaders of the largely poor, rural group of red-shirts are making a symbolic but tangible protest against the fundamental and unresolved divisions between social classes and regions.
These clashes are having a detrimental effect on Bangkok's infrastructure and Thailand's economy. A weak government in Bangkok could also destabilize the immediate region. Almost one-third of the country (including Bangkok) is now under emergency rule and more instability could increase tensions with neighbouring Cambodia which have seen ambassadors expelled, trade disrupted, accusations of espionage and a series of deadly border clashes around an ancient temple in a contested frontier area. Last November the dispute between the government and red-shirts worsened when Thaksin took up post of economic advisor with the Cambodian government for a limited time. The Thai government is also dealing with a long-running insurgency involving ethnic Malays in Southern Thailand who want greater independence from Bangkok.
As the red-shirts increase in size they are also getting more hard-line by holding their positions in the camps and engaging in increasingly violent protests. A possible reason why they continue to do so is that without the removal of the current government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vijjajiva, they would not be immune from prosecution. And even if their demands for fresh elections and the prosecution of the deputy prime minister over a deadly April clash between troops and protesters were met, there would likely be counter protests from their opponents, the royalist, middle-class yellow-shirts.
In the midst of this opaque crisis a crucial question remains: why has the Thai monarchy been silent? In the past they would typically have stepped in to quell the violence. Unless it does so in the coming days, it is unlikely that the current political stand-off has a chance of being resolved by peaceful means. Until the underlying cause of this dispute between social classes and regions is addressed, instability in Thailand will continue.
A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Telegraph on 16 May 2010.