It is unlikely that the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in Thailand will last much longer. Over the last few weeks, it has been the target of protesters who have poured into Bangkok from the rural hinterland. Grouped under the banner of United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, the protesters owe allegiance to Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted from the premiership in a military coup in 2006. The demonstrations, which had been peaceful from the time they began in mid-March, turned violent last Saturday, resulting in the death of 21 people in clashes between the protesters and the security forces. The government's heavy-handed approach to dealing with the “red shirt” protesters has led to the deepening of the turmoil. Apprehensive of getting tainted by the crisis, the Thai Army, which manoeuvred Mr. Abhisit into office through deft backroom moves at the end of December 2008, has suggested dissolution of the government. This more or less seals the Prime Minister's fate. The sole option left to him is to call fresh elections. Should he try and dig his heels in, there is every possibility of a military coup to remove him. To add to his troubles, the country's election commission has ruled that his Democrat Party received illegal donations during the 2005 elections.

There is no guarantee, however, that elections will restore political stability in Thailand. The present struggle between the Red Shirts and the government is a battle for establishing the real centre of power in the Southeast Asian nation. So far, a combination of the military-backed urban and business elites has called the shots in politics and governance. Rural Thailand now wants a say in how the country is run. The reason it backs the fugitive Mr. Thaksin, an enormously wealthy businessman charged and convicted of corruption after his ouster, is that during his time in office, he assiduously built a base in this constituency with generous welfare schemes aimed at the rural poor. Should the pro-Thaksin forces seize power, the pro-establishment camp will go all out to wrest it back and the political situation will continue to be volatile. The Thai crisis is a copybook study of benighted civilian-military relations in a country where democracy is yet to take strong roots. Since 1932, when the last absolute monarch was overthrown, Thailand has experienced 18 military coups. Even after the 1992 transition to democracy from military rule, the Thai Army has remained a strong political force. Since the 2006 putsch, it has played a “guiding” role in politics. In Thailand, as in Pakistan, the failures of civilian politicians give the military all the advantage.

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