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Friday, 23 April 2010

23 April 2010

A friend of mine complained a couple of days ago that the only news she'd heard all week was either about the election or volcanic ash. "What I want to know," she said, "is what's been happening in the rest of the world."

So I shall keep my promise to steer clear of election news on this blog (you have no idea how hard it is) - and this week I'll try to bring you up to date with developments in Thailand.

Perhaps you've been there on holiday or on business. You may have wandered through the vast shopping malls of Bangkok, or marvelled at the seediness of the Patpong red-light district. But if you'd been there this week, you would have found yourself in the middle of what could be a revolution-in-the-making.

Last night, at least one person was reported killed and dozens were injured when grenades were thrown in the centre of Bangkok's business district. It was the latest incident during six weeks of protests by thousands of anti-government protesters who are demanding immediate elections.

Who are these protesters? Allow me to introduce the "red shirts", largely poor and from the country's rural areas, supporters of the former prime minister, billionaire and one-time owner of Manchester City football club, Thaksin Shinawatra.

He was ousted in a military coup in 2006, has since been convicted of corruption, and is now living in exile in London and Dubai. Earlier this month, 25 people were killed on the streets of Bangkok when the security forces tried unsuccessfully to clear the streets of protesters.

Perhaps you remember the "yellow shirts". They too were anti-government protesters, but they were protesting two years ago against the previous government, which was closely allied to Thaksin. They were mainly royalists, businesspeople and members of the urban middle class - and they won their battle by occupying Bangkok's main international airport and threatening to throttle Thailand's economic lifeline, tourism.

So now the tables are turned and the crisis has escalated dangerously. Yesterday it was reported that the protesters had seized a military supply train in the north-east of the country and captured hundreds of troops.

Meanwhile, what of the king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, now 82 years old and in frail health? He's been on the throne since 1946 and is the world's longest-serving head of state. Traditionally, at times of crisis, he has acted behind the scenes to defuse tensions.

But not this time. Thailand's draconian laws prevent open discussion of the king or his role in public affairs, but just last week, speaking in Washington, the Thai foreign minister broke the taboo.

Kasit Piromya said: "I think we have to talk about the institution of the monarchy, how it would have to reform itself to the modern globalised world. Everything is now becoming in the open. Let's have a discussion: what type of democratic society would we like to be?"

The country is on the brink. It is deeply split between the privileged urban elite and the rural poor, and now the army is warning of a crack-down unless the protesters disperse. But the protesters are reported to be fortifying their encampment in the centre of Bangkok with barricades made out of bamboo poles and car tyres.

The current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva (pronounced Apisit Wetchacheewa), was born in Newcastle and educated at Eton and Oxford. He has declared a state of emergency and ordered the army to shut down TV and radio stations.

But now, after last night's grenade attacks, which the authorities blame on the "red shirts", there are fears that the violence could escalate sharply. Thailand is one of south-east Asia's most pivotal nations - and the next few days could be decisive.

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