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Economic Changes, Former PM Spur Thai Divisions

The demonstrations that have clogged the Thai capital for weeks reveal deep social rifts in the country. Political analysts say the divisions stem from political changes exploited by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who angered an established elite threatened by his popularity.

The red-dressed protesters who have taken over a large section of central Bangkok are mainly from the rural north. They say the country's elites - royalists, the urban middle class and senior army commanders - have removed democratically elected leaders who favor farmers and the working class.

Many of the protesters twice voted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra into power. He was ousted by the military in 2006 and now lives in exile to avoid jail time for corruption charges.

A controversial figure, Mr. Thaksin was criticized for a war on drugs that led to thousands of extra-judicial killings, a botched attempt to end an insurgency in the south, and for curbing media freedoms.

But he won the hearts of the urban and rural poor with low-interest loans and subsidized health care.

Andrew Walker is a professor of politics at Australia's National University. He says Mr. Thaksin took advantage of changes already forming in the countryside. "As controversial as he was, we have to see him as reflecting long-term changes in Thai society. He understood the aspirations of rural people for economic and political inclusion. His policies called populist were a response to that aspiration. That threatened traditional middle and upper class in Bangkok," he said.

A year after the coup, Mr. Thaksin's supporters won national elections, but that led to months of demonstrations by his yellow-dressed opponents. Eventually, politically charged court rulings on election law violations ousted his allies from power.

Thongchai Winichakul is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin. He says while Mr. Thaksin challenged the elites with his popularity, it was the yellow shirts and their supporters who brought the red shirts to the streets.

"I'm not pro-Thaksin. I criticize him. I say now that he abuses human rights. His policy in the south is bad. His war on drugs was horrible. But, I would not say that he is undemocratic. I would not say that he created a rift in this society. The traditional elites who deny the changes, who deny people's voices, who use all undemocratic methods - the coup - and dubious court rulings to deny people's voices. Those people created the rift," Winichakul explained.

The rift is far from healed. In the past two weeks, thousands of pro-government demonstrators have called for an end to the red-shirt protests. And the yellow shirts threaten to enter the fray if the government fails to end the reds' protests by the end of the week.

There are rising fears that the protests will end in violence. Already, the red shirts and security forces have clashed - on April 10th a street battle left at least 24 people dead and hundreds injured.

Hundreds of armed soldiers now guard a Bangkok commercial district, and commanders vow to stop any red shirt protest in the area, with guns if necessary. The government has warned the public to stay clear of demonstrators.

As tensions rise, so have voices expressing concern that another clash could lead to civil war.

Political analysts say Mr. Thaksin, himself a former policeman, holds sway over much of Thailand's police force. As prime minister, he put those loyal to him in top positions; the current government sidelined many of those commanders.

The divisions in the security forces are visible in apparent leaks to the protesters about the government's plans. Newspapers write of "watermelon soldiers" - who wear the green army uniform but are red supporters in their hearts - and "cantaloupe soldiers" - those favor the yellow shirts.

Pavin Chachawongpongpan is a researcher with Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. "A large portion of military men, and some of them are quite high ranking, these people have already defected to the Thaksin camp. Why they defected? Because, I think these people can see that you know … it's better to create or to build some kind of alliance with the red shirts now. So, that when the red shirts come to power after the election, then you know, then these people can get the benefit," he said.

The government offered to hold elections in nine months and says it is prepared to negotiate. Protest leaders say they are no longer interested in negotiations and demand that the government step down immediately.

Many Thais and political analysts, however, fear that elections will not heal the divisions. Many expect Mr. Thaksin's allies to win a vote, prompting yet another round of yellow shirt protests.