As the Thai Prime Minister snubs a red shirt offer to end their protest – if their demand that the parliament is dissolved in 30 days is met – more violence looms in Bangkok.
The tourist-board spin calls the country Land of Smiles, but Thailand is rapidly approaching a point of no return in its 4 year old colour-coded political stand-off.
On Thursday night, I ran for cover along with hundreds of Thais and other journalists, as explosions rocked the Silom district of Bangkok, where many banks and finance houses are located. People screamed and ran in all directions, unsure if, when and where the next explosion was going to take place.
At one end of the road, a crude bamboo and tyre barricade had been erected, in the middle of one of Asia’s biggest concrete jungles. Behind the wall, thousands of anti-government redshirts occupy a one-mile stretch of Bangkok’s plush shopping areas, six weeks after beginning their rally aimed at ousting what they believe to be an illegitimate Government.
Across from the barrier, riot police and pro-Government protestors have gathered all week, with the protestors taunting their rural red shirt counterparts with insults like Khwai, or buffalo, and telling them to go home.
The pro-government side sees themselves as educated, urbane and well-to-do. They think the red shirts are pawns in the pay of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and now lives abroad after convictions for corruption.
However many in Bangkok have supported the red shirt rally, possibly migrants from other parts of the country, now working in low wage jobs in the vast capital. Though many more are angry and frustrated at the ongoing disturbance caused to everyday life, and, of course, the violent confrontations between protestors and the army and police.
There is a class and regional divide, with the red shirts angry at Thailand’s inequality, with pockets of opulent wealth and influence surrounded by regions of rice-growing poverty.
Last Thursday’s bombings follow the April 10 ‘Battle of Bangkok’. Just before Songkran, the Thai New Year, usually a three-day carnival of drinking, water fights and fun, the army and red shirts clashed as tourists watched. 25 died and hundreds were injured.
The Government alleges that terrorists lurk among the red shirts, who deny any responsibility for the grenade attacks on Thursday night. The Army has said that the red shirts must vacate their demonstration area, which has seen the closure of 5-star hotels and Gucci-laden shopping malls.
The Thai economy depends on the country’s welcoming image, with tourism accounting for 6% of GDP. And although Bangkok is often just a stop-off for people going to beaches and island resorts in the south, the images of street fighting and bombings in Bangkok will linger.
Vaughan Parkes manages a tapas cafe in Silom, meters from the first blasts on Thursday night, which hit an overhead train station. He told me that business is down 60% since the red shirt protests moved to his part of the city.
He would like to see an end to it, but a deal seems unlikely. Violence is hardening the resolve of all sides, and the Government is coming under pressure from anti-red shirt protestors to clear the reds from Bangkok. The army and police are likely to be split: with a significant number of ‘watermelon’ soldiers – green on the outside and red on the inside. So the army top brass is not sure how to move, though many are doubtless seeking revenge for the April 10 street fighting, in which a senior colonel was killed by mysterious blackshirted gunmen among the red shirts.
And the conflict could spread. Last week, red shirts in the rural north east – their stronghold – held up a train carrying soldiers south. They claimed the troops were on the way to Bangkok to suppress the red shirt demonstration.
Thailand is on the brink of a bitter and potentially deadly conflict, and it is hard to see a way out.
– For World Report, this is Simon Roughneen in Bangkok