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"The Worst Moment in Thailand's Modern History"

That's the grim assessment from two of Thailand's foremost academics, who've neatly summed up this national nightmare for today's Wall Street Journal. 

It's a frightening superlative. Bangkok now appears to be done counting corpses from this week's political violence between soldiers and "Red Shirt" anti-govenrnment protesters. The body count falls at 85 dead and about 1,900 wounded.

If catastrophes are measured in corpses, then certainly the 2004 tsunami was worse, with roughly 4,000 dead. Just as many have died in a simmering (but isolated) insurgency in Thailand's deep south, where shadowy militants are fighting to reclaim a lost Islamic sultanate.

To compare apples, a 1976 protest against a military ruler's return ended with fewer than 50 killings.

But let's put aside those dizzying figures for a moment. These analysts, the husband-and-wife team Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, are making the case that, more than ever, Thailand is now locked into a chapter of "mutual recrimination" that seriously jeopardizes its future.

From the op-ed:

"This terrible week will further harden the already brittle divisions in Thai society. On one side, the anti-government red shirts have a new pantheon of martyrs, a thousand stories about the government and army as brutal killers, and a million reasons for resentment and revenge.

"On the other, the government and its supporters can point to the fire and looting as proof that the red shirts were just savages all along, and don't deserve to be taken seriously or accorded any mercy. These two refrains are already gaining currency, confirming prejudices and fanning hatred."

And in 2010, resentment is best fanned by -- you guessed it -- YouTube. Already, we have this mash-up of violence-inciting speeches and flaming buildings set to epic opera singing. The message, as the WSJ op-ed puts succinctly, is that "the red shirts were just savages all along."

What will the protest movement's sympathizers take from this video? That some Thai elitist thought this bloody conflict's saddest scenes, worthy of a weepy violin track, was the torching of a really awesome shopping mall.  (As for Red Shirt propaganda, there's plenty of that too. Protesters often hand out Faces of Death-worthy DVDs of army crackdowns at rallies.)

Appeals to "step back from the brink" are often cliche, but Baker and Pasuk are offering both sides specific steps towards reconciliation.

The Thai premier, Abhisit Vejjajiva, needs to offer the nation fresh elections, which is one of the protest movement's core demands. And the figurehead and likely financier of the Red Shirts movement, deposed ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, needs to end his self-imposed exile and serve out his two-year prison term for fraud.

These sacrifices, they claim, would do much to set Thailand on the healing path. But for now, much of the nation remains under nighttime curfew. And many Thais, their lives ground to a stop by the current crisis, are left with even more downtime to contemplate the mess both sides have helped create.