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A Game of Chicken in Bangkok

UPDATE: Bangkok's unrest is definitely about to turn bloody. See the postscript for the latest.

By now, a sprawling, sweaty, anti-establishment protest faction -- the "red shirts" -- has gathered its forces in Bangkok. They've vowed to stay until the government dissolves Thailand's parliament and holds new elections.

This is an unfolding story, so I'm going to dispense with context and get straight to the updates.

(If you want the backstory to Thailand's unrest, including its tenuous connections to the U.S., please check out my previous dispatches: this on an American weapon's role in the conflict, this on a court ruling against Thailand's fugitive ex-PM and this on the Thai commander-in-chief's recent Pentagon visit.)

Disgruntled Thais have been pouring into Bangkok to drive out the Prime Minster, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who they insist rose to power through undemocratic maneuvering that ultimately traces back to Thailand's 2006 military coup.

Yesterday, I embedded with a group of 300-400 cruising into the city on a flotilla of 10 boats. That's me interviewing their leader on the bow. (Thanks to fellow journalist Oliver Fall for the photo.)

Their original goal was to summon one million protesters, a figure that many observers (myself included) believed was far too lofty. Such a huge turnout would have put tremendous pressure on the government, snarled traffic and legitimized the rural, working-class grievances against the state.

But as I write this, police and news reports suggest crowds of only about 100,000. Protest leaders contend that they've amassed nearly 300,000. Crowd size estimates are notoriously hard to confirm, and lacking a helicopter and lots of free time, I can't verify these numbers independently.

Worse yet, the figures often descend into a war of words between the protest faction and the government. Crowd size is "juice," a.k.a power and respect, and both sides have an incentive to inflate or deflate their estimates.

Now it's down to a game of chicken. The government has said dissolution isn't going to happen, so protest leaders will need to stage something dramatic to keep up momentum. (UPDATE: They've announced their next stunt, which is rather bizarre. Scroll down to read the latest.)

Right now, they've marched to the army barracks, which are symbolic of the last coup. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has also stayed overnight at these infantry headquarters.

How invasive are protest leaders ready to get? And can police and soldiers hold off on a crackdown until the rallies run out of cash and energy?

Ultimately, that will determine the outcome of this so-called "final battle." Thai public opinion has an incredibly low tolerance for violence, so the first side to broadcast images of a soldier or protester with a cracked skull can claim to the moral high ground.

That's the most unpleasant aspect of this entire game. Points are sometimes scored in blood, and it probably won't be politicians or protest leaders laid up in the hospital. It's more likely to be a 21-year-old soldier following orders or a taxi driver from the provinces convinced he's at war for Thailand's future.

As a counter-weight to that heavy thought, let me leave you with two scenes from the "final battle." The troops and protesters are hardly at each other's throats. It's a waiting game that involves, well, lots of waiting... in the tropical sun, on the sidewalk, with not much to do.

And here's the cabin of the boat I traveled on. That excited wailing in the background -- "We're going to go save the country!" -- was piped in through the intercom.

P.S. Well, the protests will definitely turn bloody. Protest leaders have asked that 100,000 of their faithful draw blood via a cooperating local hospital. Tomorrow morning, they plan to splash it all around the prime minister's compound so that politicians will have to walk through the people's blood to go to work.

If that doesn't force the government to quit, they'll take their blood-splashing campaign to the PM's house.

I'll be there with my camera to catch the action and possibly hepatitis. (Now I really regret delaying my vaccinations.)