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Page last updated at 10:15 GMT, Sunday, 11 April 2010 11:15 UK

Thai government feels fallout from deadly clashes

By Vaudine England
BBC News, Bangkok

A red-shirt protester sits atop an armourned personnel carrier in Bangkok on 11 April
The red-shirt protesters are demanding new elections

A month ago, Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva might have felt relatively secure, despite the opposition's anger at his government.

A court had just confiscated two-thirds of the private assets of the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Local newspapers were firmly on the government's side, predicting some days of angry ranting by an uneducated rabble from the countryside which would soon peter out.

But then the anti-government protesters, the red-shirts, began their protests in the old heart of Bangkok, to press for new elections, and Mr Abhisit has spent the following weeks under military protection, unable to go home or to his office.

He had to beg generals to implement emergency laws intended to clear the demonstrations once and for all.

And when the troops finally did decide to move against the red-shirts on 10 April, it was a botched operation, leading to the deaths of some 20 people, both civilians and soldiers.

COLOUR-CODED PROTESTS
Many rural dwellers and urban poor support red-shirts, while yellow-shirts comprise mainly middle classes and urban elite
In September 2008 yellows rally against government, reds counter-rally, clashes in Bangkok
Yellows blockade airport in November 2008, government collapses, yellow-friendly government installed
In April 2009 red protests halt Asean summit, two people die in Bangkok clashes, rallies called off
Reds relaunch protests in March 2010, splash blood on government buildings, march on parliament

The red-shirts are still in control of some streets in the capital. Huge trucks are blocking public access to the central shopping district and the original base camp at Phan Fah bridge is gathering new recruits during the day.

The high number of dead damages both sides, but analysts are wondering where the government can go from here.

"Mr Abhisit is under a lot of pressure," said Dr Amorn Wanichwiwatana, who teaches Thai politics at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

"He is in a difficult situation - it is hard to see how he could step down splendidly," Dr Amorn said.

It is also raises the prospect of a different kind of military action, he said.

"We have to allow for the possibility of a coup, or a silent coup," said Dr Amorn, adding that the military was not necessarily united behind the Abhisit government.

'Petrified'

Dr Thitinan Pongsudihrak, also from Chulalongkorn University, shares the view that the prime minister's days in office could well be numbered.

Thai Prime Minsiter Abhisit Vejjajiva in a photo from 7 April
Mr Abhisit faces a huge challenge in trying to return the situation to normal

"Abhisit's departure is imminent," said Dr Thitinan, who is currently teaching at Stanford University in the US.

"If he and his backers decide to go in for more crackdown, it could boomerang beyond imagination by galvanising the reds' upheaval into an inchoate people's revolution.

"The army's casualties and loss of armoury are shocking... Establishment forces are now shocked, petrified and paranoid. This is why a military assertiveness, perhaps revolving around the more hawkish [deputy armed forces commander] Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, could be on the cards in the short run," he suggested.

The last time there was this much bloodshed on the streets was in 1992, when pro-democracy protesters fought against the appointment of an unelected general, Suchinda Kraprayoon, as prime minister, a conflict only ended when King Bhumibol Adulyadej intervened.

A year ago, red-shirt protesters also tried to get rid of the Abhisit government, only to back off after a few days and two deaths.

This time, the reds have exercised more discipline and organisation.

"Their resolve and rage, mobilisation and organisation, over the past year have been underestimated by the Bangkok-based establishment fronted by Mr Abhisit," said Dr Thitinan.

"Their newfound traction has staying power. When reds' numbers dwindle, reinforcements of both the rural disenchanted and the urban underclass show up. Time was on Abhisit's side before the deadly clash, but now time is on the reds' side."

This movement represents the rising political consciousness of a generation, he says.

Mr Abhisit insists he is committed to returning the situation to normal as soon as possible.

In that he may be frustrated however as many observers fear this situation will get worse before it gets better.



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