walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
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Tear Gas in the Streets of Bangkok

The murky waters of Thai politics are darker and muddier than usual this week. The ‘yellow shirts’ are back in the streets of Bangkok, demanding the end of the current government.

Organizers had spoken of mobilizing hundreds of thousands of supporters. But only around 10,000 turned up, and by dusk the leaders called the rally off.

Nevertheless, the tense gathering served as a reminder that the simmering political divisions unleashed after the nation’s 2006 army coup have not gone away. The coup toppled [current PM] Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, triggering years of instability and mass-protests that have shaken Bangkok.

Saturday’s rally was organized by a royalist group calling itself “Pitak Siam” — or “Protect Thailand.” Led by retired army Gen. Boonlert Kaewprasit, the group accuses Yingluck’s administration of corruption, ignoring insults to the monarchy and being a puppet of Thaksin.

The demonstrations are small but intense and point to powerful forces at work behind the scenes.

Two thoughts to bear in mind. First, the government under Thaksin’s sister has been doing well and consolidating its authority.

Second, Thailand’s aged and revered king keeps getting older, and presumably factional struggles in the palace establishment are growing more intense. In a new era for the monarchy, will power flow to forces aligned with Thaksin and the rural millions who revere him, or will the current palace establishment retain its power?

Some in the old establishment must fear that if Thaksin and/or his sister is running the government at the time of succession, the pro-Thaksin forces will consolidate their grip on the palace as well as the parliament. That would mean a historic shift in the balance of power in Thailand, and there are many in the country who would not let that happen without a struggle.

Thailand is anything but transparent; between tough lese-majesté laws, the indirect political style of many Thai leaders, the role of palace infighting and the shrouds of financial secrecy in a country where the black economy is very large and very well connected, it is extremely hard for outsiders to follow events with any clarity.

Big fish are circling one another warily in those murky waters, though, and the possibility of swift and sudden moves should not be discounted.

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