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Get Ready for a Bloody End Game in Thailand

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
February 26, 2014
Bloomberg.com

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Clashes in Thailand between anti-government protestors and security forces have intensified. Over the past weekend, unidentified gunmen sprayed bullets at anti-government protestors in eastern Thailand, killing a five-year-old girl, and someone apparently launched two grenade attacks in Bangkok. Since the current round of demonstrations started last November, 21 people have been killed and hundreds injured in Thailand. The country has basically functioned without an effective government for months, the once-teflon economy is sputtering, and Thais are preparing for the violence to get worse. The leader of the demonstrations has vowed to hunt down Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the protestors have been electrified by the turn of events in Ukraine, and all sides appear to be taking more confrontational positions.

Although Thailand's cycle of political instability seems to have gone on forever—the genesis of the unrest dates back roughly a decade—the chaos in Bangkok is likely to end soon. The government has appointed hard-line ministers to the top security positions, the powerful army chief has for the first time issued a warning to the demonstrators, and the protestors have upped their violent rhetoric and seemingly armed themselves with heavier weapons. The denouement in Bangkok, coming shortly, is not likely to be pretty.

The divide in Thai society dates to the early 2000s, when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother, became the nation's first leader to unite the rural poor and use their combined votes to dominate Parliament. Protests in 2005 and 2006 by members of the Bangkok elite, worried at their loss of power and also furious at Thaksin's venal and at times brutal rule, led to a coup in 2006. Since then the country has been caught in a never-ending cycle of protest by elites, toppling of pro-Thaksin governments, brief installations of pro-elite governments, and then counter-protests by Thaksin supporters and the election of pro-Thaksin governments.

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