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Thailand on the brink

Street protests, violence, political intrasigence and the ever-present shadow of the army have made for an incendiary mix. Thailand has been in turmoil since November 2013 when anti-government protesters took to Bangkok's streets following Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's botched attempt to pass an amnesty bill seeking to pardon her controversial brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is currently living in exile in Dubai. Solutions have been sought but few found.

David Marx of believes that Thailand is in the midst of a "classic struggle between social classes," as hundreds of thousands of upper and middle class demonstrators press for the resignation of Yingluck, whose Pheu Thai Party is popular with rural and lower income voters, not least for her populist policies of free health care and rice subsidies for farmers.

Thai member of parliament Kasit Piromya dismisses the protest as merely class differences and backs the anti-government movement. In a column for Al Jazeera, Piromya says that the protesters, led by former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), regard Yingluck as a puppet of her deposed sibling. "The Thais have a legitimate right to protest against a corrupt and unlawful government. It has done enough damage to our beloved country. We cannot allow them more time in power to cause more damage," he says.

Suthep and his supporters oppose an election in favour of an unelected "people's council" from its own base. The Bangkok Post praised the idealism of the protesters but was critical of their unclear message. "Political reform by definition entails a national agenda," the editorial states. "Neither parliament nor Mr Suthep's vaguely referenced council is capable of coming up with what is needed."

Mark Thompson of the South China Morning Post argues that Suthep's grievances are a case of the pot calling the kettle black in light of the Suthep's own mid-nineties scandal that brought down the Democrat government. Thompson adds, "The Democrats' self-righteousness reveals how little they understand Thailand's socio-economic transformation. Many 'provincial' Thais are now better educated, have attained lower-middle income status and often hold jobs in cities, changes the pro-Thaksin forces have skilfully catered to with populist policies."

Andrew Marshall of CNN ponders the royal succession following the passing of the ailing 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej as another political motivation (even though no one dares to talk about it for fear of Thailand's harsh lèse majesté laws). "Thailand has long been dominated by an oligarchy of immensely wealthy families connected to the palace through intermarriage and through business deals with the Crown Property Bureau, which manages royal wealth," Marshall writes. "The Thai establishment fears the rise of a new political and business elite revolving around Thaksin, which would spell the end of the dominance of the old elite."

An op-ed from The Nation predicts a bleak, lose-lose situation even if one side prevails. "Even if the end comes soon, reconciliation will doubtless be much further down the road. The 'winners' will likely be left sleepless at night while the 'losers' will go back to plotting revenge. Rules will be rewritten, erased and written all over again. The vicious cycle of Thailand's political history will keep churning."

The Economist believes that a solution is possible in a three-pronged approach that "requires the government, the opposition and the monarchy all to change." First, the opposition "must abandon its undemocratic tactics. Its leaders want it both ways. They support parliamentary democracy when it produces the 'right' result; when it does not, they resort to the streets, the courts or a phone call to army headquarters." Second, the Thaksin government needs to cater to all social classes, not just its current supporters: "That includes confronting corruption, ditching crazy policies, such as a price-support scheme for rice, and promoting a better business climate." Lastly, "the monarchy must stop playing politics and accept the symbolic role the constitution accords it". – Lorraine Chow