What happens in the next few days in Thailand could reshape the political land scape of that country.
Two powerful forces are on course for a titanic struggle, and neither side is showing signs of backing down.
At issue is the election on February 2 Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has called to form a new parliament. Shinawatra had dissolved the parliament late last year, hoping to dilute a growing disenchantment against her government.
For months demonstrators have swarmed the streets of Bangkok, trying to shut down the capital. They are demanding that Shinawatra step down, accusing her of proxying for her brother Thaksin, who was unseated in a military coup in 2006.
Since December, the protests have grown increasingly violent, with more than 10 people killed and scores wounded. Last week, one of the key leaders of the protesters was shot dead in Bangkok, adding more fuel to an already explosive situation.
The lines have been drawn. The antigovernment demonstrators are out to stop the election at all costs, knowing that Yingluck and her well-entrenched associates will win it hands down. They are calling instead for the appointment of a “people’s council,” but they are vague on how to go about it.
Forced into a corner, the prime minister last week put the country under a state of emergency, giving the military and police authority to take more drastic action to see to it that the polls push through.
Beneath the political surface, the current crisis has strong undercurrents that lap at Thailand’s social structure.
The demonstrators, who refer to themselves as the “whistle mob,” are a rainbow alliance of groups from Thailand’s elite, middle class and the stronghold of the opposition party in the south.
The Shinawatras, on the other hand, draw their political clout from the rural sector, where Thaksin is hugely popular. (Think of him as the Joseph Estrada of the Thai masa.) Thaksin rode this popularity to victory in several elections.
The antigovernment protesters acknowledge that their candidates will be routed in the February 2 election and are trying their best to subvert it.
The two sides have dug in, and as February 2 nears, the prospects of reaching a compromise grow more remote.
The military could step in, as it did in 2006, but how will it handle the situation opens the floodgates for speculation. Will the generals overthrow Yingluck and exile her, as they did her brother? Will they allow the February 2 vote to happen? Will they install a junta as a caretaker government while they sort out the political mess?
In the past, the military had sided with the protesters when it sent Thaksin packing. So far it has showed no signs of intervening. Last December, Thailand’s armed forces chief made the appeal: “Please don’t’ bring the army into the center of this conflict.”
But he was quick to add: “The door is neither closed nor open. In every situation, anything can happen.”
Any move to end the turmoil must be made before February 2, or blood could flow in the streets of Bangkok again. If that happens, Thailand could plunge into a major crisis it will find difficult to get out of.
What happens to Thailand will have a profound effect on Southeast Asia.
Thailand is a close-friend country of the Philippines and our co-founder of the original Association of Southeast Asian Nations.