BANGKOK was rocked by anti-government demonstrations earlier this month — once a depressingly familiar sight.
But that bad news shouldn't overshadow the good. Disruptive protests may have been all too common in Thailand just a short while ago, but in the last two years, they've become an anomaly. The country has gone from a virtual wreck to a booming, and relatively stable, success story. Figuring out how it's managed to do that is important, and not just for Thailand's 65 million citizens. For if a place this polarized can pull itself back from the brink, other bitterly divided societies might be able to as well.
To get a sense of how far and fast Thailand has come, consider its recent past. Marketed to tourists as the land of a thousand smiles, Thailand spent most of the last decade fighting with itself.
The trouble really began in 2006, when the military, in connivance with royalists and the courts, overthrew the populist prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The coup ignited years of running street battles between citizen armies of "yellow shirts" — defenders of the old, semifeudal order — and "red shirts," Thaksin supporters among the rural and urban poor. Political power changed hands four more times in four years. In January 2010, the police responded to enormous red-shirt protests by killing over 90 demonstrators, injuring 2,400 others and jailing hundreds. The economy went into a tailspin.