Once unthinkable, civil strife stalks tropical Thailand

Anti-government protesters gather outside the Royal Thai Police headquarters during a rally in central Bangkok February 26, 2014. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha (Reuters)

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand is hurtling towards a dark and unfamiliar place. After almost four months of round-the-clock anti-government protests, institutions that provided a buffer in past conflicts have not stepped in, making the country look increasingly ungovernable. That raises the chances of low-intensity civil strife wiping the grin off the "Land of Smiles" as Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's grip on power appears to slip away. Critics have branded Yingluck a prime minister on the run due to her absence from Bangkok after she was hounded by protesters last week, adding to the uncertainty after some of the deadliest attacks since the protests began. Increasing lawlessness, which is certain to spook investors, has been made worse by the reluctance of security forces to make a move, having managed to clear only one of several protest sites. In its strongest signal since the crisis began, the military said on Monday it would not step in despite a weekend of violence that saw five people killed, four of them children, in separate attacks in Bangkok and eastern Thailand. Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha distanced himself from the anti-government group saying troops "do not want to use force ... to unnecessarily fight with the Thai people" while the 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has stepped in to defuse previous crises, has remained silent. In the absence of the usual safety nets, many are talking about the possibility of civil war. "We are for the first time entering an era in which there is no neutral, bona fide third party above the political fray which can reset the dialogue and insist on reconciliation," Christian Lewis, a Southeast Asia specialist at political risk consultants Eurasia Group, told Reuters. The crisis pits the mainly middle-class and southern anti-government demonstrators, who are backed by the royalist establishment, against the largely rural supporters of Yingluck and her brother, ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Both sides have armed activists. "POWERFUL FORCES" Thaksin's enemies say he is a corrupt, crony capitalist who manipulates the masses with populist handouts and is a threat to the monarchy, which he denies. Protesters blame his sister for policy failure including a botched rice subsidy scheme - losses are estimated at $6 billion annually since 2011 - that paid farmers above market price for their rice. Yingluck's days appear numbered with protesters trying to drive a wedge between the premier and her support base in the mostly poor, agrarian north and northeast of Thailand. "There is no conceivable way that she can become prime minister again. Powerful forces in this country won't allow it," said Kan Yuenyong, of the Siam Intelligence Unity think-tank. "If she's not going to resign, the idea is to slowly divide her from her base." Protesters have twinned their cause with thousands of angry farmers who have traditionally formed the backbone of Yingluck's support but descended on Bangkok last week threatening to storm her temporary headquarters. Yingluck is due to hear charges against her for negligence in the rice scheme on Thursday. If the case is sent to court and she is found guilty, she would be forced to resign and could be barred from politics for five years. Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asia Affairs in northern Chiang Mai, thinks a violent confrontation looks increasingly likely. "There's a growing rift between the armed forces and the police and a question of overlapping jurisdiction between the two. Add to that the fact that the protesters and pro-government forces could conceivably face off and you have a possibility of low-scale conflict in Bangkok," said Chambers. The conflict has killed 21 people and left more than 700 wounded since November 30. Tough rhetoric from leaders of the pro-government "red shirt" movement at a recent rally attended by several thousand in the northeast set off more alarm bells. "JUDICIAL COUP" Jatuporn Prompan, a leader of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship allied to Thaksin's Puea Thai Party, told the "war drum" meeting that government supporters had two choices - "to win or get killed". Some pro-government leaders have called for the country to be divided in two, along north-south political lines. The crisis is a long way from the running gun battles of April and May 2010 when more than 90 people died, but the situation could quickly deteriorate. "If we start seeing intense fighting like in 2010 then the central bank, which has been using rate cuts to manage the economy, will struggle to avert a crisis," said Boonyakiat Karavekphan, a political analyst at Ramkamhaeng University. Without decisive intervention by the army, the anti-government protesters will struggle to remove Yingluck and replace her with their planned "people's council" of unelected good and worthy. Their most likely source of help looks to be the judiciary, which government supporters say is biased against Thaksin's political machine. Evidence of that, they complain, was a recent court order banning the government from using force against the protesters under a state of emergency imposed last month. Apart from negligence in the rice scheme, Yingluck faces other abuse of power cases which could force her from office. The idea of a coup by the military, which has staged many, including one against Thaksin in 2006, is no longer so palatable. "A military coup is too apparent," said Puea Thai's legal adviser, Bhokin Bhalakula. "That's why her enemies are trying to use judicial coups." But Yingluck's removal would not restore order. On the contrary, the Shinawatras' passionate supporters say they will retaliate against the unfair dismissal of the government they voted in to office in 2011. (Additional reporting by Alisa Tang; Editing by Nick Macfie and Robert Birsel)