Thailand’s political crisis is rooted in divisions over wealth, geography and the palace’s loyalties that are likely to erupt into further violence before they are healed, analysts say.
To the tourists trapped by protests at the main airports in the “Land of Smiles,” the stand-off is a bewildering sight of yellow and red shirts, plastic clappers and groups claiming a monopoly on the word “democracy.”
But to Thais it is the culmination of years of struggles between the old Bangkok-based elite and brash new politicians from the poorer, rural north — represented by the divisive figure of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Since the ouster of populist telecoms tycoon Thaksin in a military coup in 2006 those divisions have hardened and with no other major political figures emerging, the chance of a lasting solution is slim, analysts said.
“I think things are heading for much worse before the dust settles,” analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak said.
In the yellow corner is the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a coalition of royalists, businessmen and middle-class Thais centred on Bangkok who want to topple the elected government, saying it is a corrupt proxy for Thaksin.
Their distinctive yellow T-shirts and headbands are meant to symbolize loyalty to the revered king, and the group says it is trying to protect the monarchy — but analysts say they are more worried about their own interests.
Raised in the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thaksin angered “conservative, establishment” forces with drives to bring greater economic benefits to his native region during his 2001-2006 spell in power, Thitinan said.
The PAD led protests resulted in the coup two years ago, but Thaksin’s allies were voted back in in the first post-putsch elections last December.
Conservatives in Bangkok “called the shots for decades,” Thitinan said.
“They are unwilling to change with the times ... This is why they got rid of Thaksin but they can’t quite hold back the forces that were unleashed by Thaksin,” he said.
“But Thaksin was also corrupt and abusive of power,” Thitinan said.
The PAD has said it wants to replace the current one-man one-vote system with one that includes non-elected members, in what it says is a bid to end vote-buying that brought Thaksin to power.
Conversely Thaksin’s supporters — who have taken to wearing red clothes to distinguish themselves from their rivals — are pushing for the increased influence they gained after the former policeman came to power in 2001.
“We have got a pretty divided society,” said political commentator Chris Baker, co-author of several books on Thailand.
“You have got a larger bit which had been getting left behind economically and feeling ignored politically. This blew up in the last 10 years,” Baker said.
But in a country that has seen 18 coups since the absolute monarchy became constitutional in 1932, the question of the forces behind the protesters is crucial.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej has over the decades cultivated an image as a constitutional monarch above political tussles, only wading into politics in the 1970s and in 1992, ordering military dictatorships to end bloody crackdowns.
The only indication of his views about Thaksin came in April 2006 when the king gave a rare address implying that recent elections were undemocratic. The courts swiftly annulled the poll.
But Thitinan said there was inference of some royal backing for the PAD when Queen Sirikit attended the funeral of a protester killed in massive clashes with police on Oct. 7.
With no official word from the palace on the current disputes, the government and military both appear cautious of taking steps to remove the protesters from the airport before the king’s traditional birthday speech due this week.
Thailand’s powerful army chief called on Somchai to dissolve parliament to end the crisis and also told protesters to abandon the airports they hold, but both have rejected his comments.
The PAD, military and the conservative establishment “would rather see total chaos in Thailand rather than allow democracy to function,” analyst Giles Ji Ungpakorn wrote on Wednesday in the Asia Sentinel, a Web-based publication.
Baker said that support for the PAD was dwindling as its tactics became more disruptive, adding that the movement was now in its “death throes.”
But he warned that while the rancor unleashed by the 2006 coup remained unresolved “it will take some time to get things back on track.”
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