BANGKOK, April 14 (Reuters) – Thai anti-government protesters on Wednesday abandoned one of their two protest sites to congregate in a downtown Bangkok shopping district, a tactical move in preparation for what they say is “a final battle.”
At least 23 people were killed on Saturday, with hundreds wounded. The violence was a game-changing factor, which may tip the balance of power in favour of the opposition, analysts said.
So what happens now?
IS VIOLENCE ABOUT TO ERUPT AGAIN?
It is unlikely in the short term. The failed attempt to eject protesters from one of their encampments on Saturday, which turned into violent clashes, embarrassed the military. It is now going on a public relations offensive to explain that security forces were targeted by “terrorists”. The army is unlikely to come out in full force again, risking its reputation to protect Abhisit, whose political capital appears to be dwindling.
The protesters have abandoned a vulnerable protest site on a bridge in the historic part of the city and are consolidating in th Rachaprasong intersection shopping district, close to the main business area. The geography of the area, and the presence of families, tourists, expatriates in luxury hotels and apartments, make it very unlikely the troops will move in.
A state of emergency is in effect, banning public gatherings of more than five people, yet thousands remain on the streets. Army chief Anupong Paochinda said “political problems require a political solution”, another indication the army is unwilling at this point to crack down on behalf of the embattled government.
COULD ABHISIT CAVE IN?
Abhisit will likely have to dissolve parliament soon or resign. Pressure will mount on him if the protests continue to paralyse the capital’s commercial heart. The government has said it does not want to give in to mob rule but Abhisit has offered few clues as to how he will resolve the crisis.
Complicating Abhisit’s future, Thailand’s poll watchdog set in motion a procedure that could lead to the disbanding of his Democrat Party over suspected funding irregularities. A similar ruling ended a Thaksin-supported coalition government in 2008, ending a seizure of the airport by “yellow shirt” protesters.
Some in the establishment, however, are believed to be manoeuvring for Abhisit to quit, paving the way for a temporary “national unity government” that would bring all parties, including the Thaksin-allied opposition, into the fold. That could take the red shirts off the streets and buy time before fresh polls are called.
WILL THE VIOLENCE HURT THE ECONOMY?
The short answer is yes. Credit rating agencies and economists say the escalation of violence will hit tourism revenue, foreign direct investment, economic growth and the country’s ability to repay its debts.
But Thailand has had 18 coups since 1932 and protests by yellow shirts, red shirts, and others are a way of life, even if Bangkok has not seen such violence since 1992. Until the declaration of a state of emergency last week, Thailand along with the rest of Southeast Asia had seen a surge in foreign investment inflows, with $1.8 billion coming into Southeast Asia’s second largest economy from Feb. 22 to March 7.
Stocks dived over 3 percent on Monday and all eyes will be on the market when it reopens on Friday, looking for a sign of a trend. Tourism has taken a hit, but it always bounces back in what many people believe to be one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
IS THERE A CHANCE OF ANOTHER COUP?
It’s not totally out of the question if Abhisit’s government teeters and the influential men in green who traditionally play a pivotal role in politics risk losing behind-the-scenes clout.
The top brass is well aware that another coup will not sit well with the international community and could provoke a violent response in the bitterly divided country. Some within the army may prefer the use of “soft power” to push Abhisit out and install a new premier to buy time before the next poll is held.
Analysts say large numbers of soldiers in the lower ranks and some senior officers sympathise with the red shirts. Many of the military’s top brass are at the other end of the political spectrum, allied with royalists, business elites and the urban middle classes who wear yellow or pink at counter-protests and broadly back the 16-month-old government.
Adding to the mix is the question of succession of ageing 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has been hospitalised since Sept. 19, and whether an eventual succession would lead to a change in the balance of power in the military, which is traditionally closely aligned with the palace.
WHO ARE THE RED SHIRTS AND WHAT ARE THEY FIGHTING FOR?
They are mostly supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, drawing support from the rural poor, and increasingly from the urban working class.
Their formal name is the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). They wear red shirts to distinguish themselves from the pro-establishment yellow shirts. A leader also said once that it is “a striking colour which shows our fighting spirit.”
They back Thaksin, because of his welfare and rural development policies while in office from 2001-2006. Many of them believe his conviction for corruption after he was ousted in a 2006 military coup was an attempt to keep him out of politics after the coup. Not all red shirts back Thaksin unreservedly, but all are angered by the manner of his removal and believe democracy is being undermined by powerful, unelected figures.
The red shirts say Abhisit’s coalition government is illegitimate because it was not elected but pieced together with the backing of the army in a “silent coup” in December 2008 after a ruling pro-Thaksin party was dissolved. It wants new elections, which it is confident the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai Party would win. (Additional reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan; Editing by Bill Tarrant)