Political crisis goes into overdrive

The government has declared a state of emergency in Bangkok. Thousands of violent protesters stormed the Interior ministry and attacked a car carrying carrying the Thai prime minister. And now there are reports that armored vehicles have begun patrolling the city’s streets.

The chaos that has been steadily intensifying for the last few weeks is becoming a very real threat, not only to the government officials who are being attacked, but also to the people of Bangkok. Rumors are circulating that yet again the airports might be overtaken (though the protesters have denied they will take such action) and that the protesters could turn violent. There are also murmurs that there will be a military crackdown, a possibility seemingly supported by the armored vehicles on the streets.

This kind of political turmoil is commonplace in a country that has had 18 military coups since the 1930s. But the recent unrest has even some seasoned expats concerned that the protesters this time around are playing by completely different rules.

Yellow-shirted pro-royalist protesters _ who shuttered Bangkok’s two airports for eight days _ demonstrated to have allies of disgraced and exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra removed from power. A court then ordered the removal of Thaksin’s allies and the Parliament installed current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Red-shirted protesters _ who are responsible for the turmoil in recent weeks _ are now arguing that Abhisit came to power illegitimately. They are also backed by Thaksin, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006. He has been calling in daily from exile to encourage the red shirts to continue their protests. And thus a vicious cycle continues.

The difference between the protests last year and the recent demonstrations is the lengths to which the red-shirted protesters are going to make their point clear. They want Abhisit to step down and for new elections to be called, and they refuse to stop until it happens. But with the prime minister refusing to step down, the protesters have upped the ante and made it clear that they are a serious threat.

On Saturday, they stormed the site of the East Asia Summit in Pattaya, where leaders from 16 Asian nations were meeting to determine how best to deal with the global economic crisis. They smashed windows, swarmed the lobby chanting and waving flags, and forced the evacuation by helicopter and sea of the Asian leaders. On TV, military personnel could be seen standing aside to let demonstrators pass. The red-shirts declared it a victory. Observers declared it an embarrassment.

Now, with the streets of Bangkok filled with a regrouped mob and armored vehicles, it’s a waiting game to see how far the protesters will go. The police and the government have been completely ineffective in stopping both the red and yellow shirts and there is little faith that if the military steps in, they will be able to do much to quell the unruly group.

Updates from me will come as I get them, especially on how daily life is being affected by this crisis. For now, the reaction among my colleagues and friends is that it is just another step in Thailand’s political turmoil. But many have given a slight pause and the doubt in their face makes it clear that this time around, no one knows what the outcome will be. Tourists, however, have taken note and there are reports that this latest bout of disorder will further cripple the country’s already battered tourism industry. To those hoping to visit soon, I would wait and watch.

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