Is Thailand headed for civil war?

BANGKOK, Thailand — Outside an Au Bon Pain cafe scarred by grenade shrapnel, several hundred Thais gathered to shout down their enemies.

Their enmity was aimed across a busy thoroughfare, past a crude rampart built from bamboo and old tires, and into an urban encampment of the “Red Shirts,” a protest faction hellbent on ousting the government.

Chants of “buffaloes” and “monitor lizards” in Thai — codewords for hicks and scumbags — sounded across the street. On the other side, men peered through their bamboo barrier, smoking cheap cigarettes, gripping wooden clubs and muttering curses of their own.

This is the troubling state of Thailand’s political divide. So bitter is the stand-off between self-proclaimed “commoners” and pro-establishment forces that Thailand’s media, senators and scholars are now openly fretting about civil war.

Why does Thai society fear civil war?

Because years of crippling protests have reached a new low and all sides agree that a resolution appears far off.

In its sixth week, a movement waged by self-proclaimed “commoners” to topple the ruling party has tallied 26 deaths and roughly 900 injuries. The Red Shirts attract a laboring class following, who claim mistreatment under a system of “double standards” favoring urban elites.

They’ve also drawn in new-money business interests and militant hardliners. The movement remains connected to fugitive ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, forced out in a 2006 military coup.

As rallies drag on, Bangkok has suffered a rash of mysterious M-79 grenade launcher strikes against symbols of power: banks, ministries and other sites. On April 22, bombings targeted counter-protesters gathering near an elevated rail station. Locals and foreigners alike poured out of a commuter train with chest gashes and bleeding foreheads. More than 75 were injured and one woman died.

“They’re murderers. We’re tired of them killing innocent people,” said Pratheep Salee, 31, an office worker who witnessed the bombings. He is one of many Bangkok residents who’ve gathered recently to hearten Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and call for crackdowns on the Red Shirts.

Private organizations have even pushed for public screenings of “Hotel Rwanda” — Hollywood’s take on the Central African nation’s gruesome civil war — as a cautionary tale for Thailand. This week, prominent news channel Thai PBS aired scenes from the film interspersed with slow-motion footage of Bangkok’s recent bombings and mournful singing.

Senators have convened in parliament to assess the possibility of civil war, according to Thai-language newspaper Kom Chad Luek. And after top broker Kim Eng Securities warned clients of an internal “full-scale war,” the Thai stock market plummeted by 2 percent.

Will Thailand really descend into civil war?

According to analysts, it’s unlikely.

Many academics define civil wars as conflicts that tally at least 1,000 deaths per year and witness the weaker force inflicting at least 5 percent of all fatalities.

The probability of such a large-scale conflict remains “quite remote,” said Federico Ferrara, a National University of Singapore political science professor and author of "Thailand Unhinged: Unraveling the Myth of Thai-Style Democracy."

“The two sides are very unlikely to engage in open warfare with one another,” Ferrara said.

Still, future stand-offs between Red Shirts and troops, rival demonstrators or both could very well serve as flash points for more bloodshed, he said. “Given the firepower and strength of the two sides, the conflict definitely has the potential to create mass casualties.”

The current Thai preoccupation with civil war is more than hysteria, said Kevin Hewison, director of the Carolina Asia Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The civil war threat, he said, has been invoked by the government itself, which has warned that Red Shirts are pursuing a potentially violent overhaul of Thai institutions.

Bitterness is compounded by the insults such as “buffaloes” and pro-government columnists’ insistence that rural voters are uneducated and easily swayed by corrupt politicians.

“For the Red Shirts who fall into this category, this is a terrible rejection of their world and their lives,” Hewison said. This class rage is further stoked by protest leaders’ stage rhetoric, which frequently derides the prime minister and his allies as “murderers and tyrants.”

Why don't soldiers and police end protests by force?

The Red Shirts claim that many cops and troops privately sympathize with their movement. This has helped further one of Thailand’s imagined civil war scenarios: a mutiny by soldiers known as “watermelons” for their military greens and red ideology.

This pro-Red streak within within military and police ranks is genuine, Ferrara said. But there are also many non-ideological soldiers who just won’t kill citizens to preserve a government that may not last the year.

The Red Shirts have nurtured this split within security forces, calling on sympathizers to defy any commander ordering raids on their encampment. Even though soldiers fired on protesters during an April 10 raid — Bangkok’s worst political violence in 18 years — the ambush failed after troops fled, allowed protesters to yank rifles from their hands and abandoned six armed personnel carriers.

“Why should we be afraid of soldiers?” said Santi Sarathai, a 33-year-old Red Shirt protester and vendor from Bangkok’s outskirts. “The more the government makes scary announcements, the more of us come out. The soldiers aren’t brave enough to hurt us.”

If not civil war, then what? 

A worsening urban-rural divide and sporadically violent demonstrations.

Upcountry Thais and working-class city dwellers are likely to remain mobilized until new elections are called. But even if they elect a political party to their liking, a rival pro-establishment movement may emerge to paralyze Bangkok with similar rallies.

Military and government heads fear that bending to the Red Shirts’ demand for new elections will set a perilous precedent: that any group able to amass a protesting mob can extort its way to power.

“If there is more hate and division in Thai society,” opined Thai newspaper Matichon, “then this might translate to civil war. We’ll hurt each other, we won’t trust each other and society’s wounds will only deepen.”

The conflict has already spread beyond Bangkok’s city limits and into northern provinces where police chiefs and municipal heads display open allegiance to the movement.

This week, a train loaded with military supplies was halted by locals fearing the weapons were being summoned for fresh raids on protesters. Local authorities did little to prevent citizens from blocking the train’s path with pick-up trucks.

“It would seem that actions in provincial areas could harry the Abhisit government well into the future,” Hewison said. “Grabbing trains, blocking roads, damaging electricity supplies, dams, fuel supplies and roads have all been mentioned.”