Sunday, March 14, 2010

Brinkmanship begins - who will blink first?

There was no phone-in on Friday night from their beloved hero, but rural red-shirted people seemed to hear an SOS from Thaksin Shinawatra, wherever he was. Yesterday was a big response compared to the lukewarm showing of their Bangkok counterparts the day before, and with red masses from upcountry pouring into the city, the game is now on.

Police put the number of protesters at below 100,000, but media estimates may be above that by a substantial margin.

A stage has been set up at the Phan Fah Bridge on Rajdamnoen Avenue, which will remain the key rally site at least for the next few days. With that, a very dangerous stand-off officially began and anyone who thinks Thailand's political crisis is nearing an end will have to think again.

This face-off may end quickly, though, as it's in nobody's interest for it to drag on. Protest leader Jatuporn Promphan - remarkably rejuvenated after looking like a fish in polluted water on Friday - gave Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva until noon today to dissolve the House of Representatives or the red shirts would up the ante tomorrow.


The ultimatum will not be met, and tomorrow will see the ultimate game of who blinks first. Red shirts, sources said, would attempt to "provoke" the authorities but keep the aggression just below the level that could justify a crackdown. They will move around and surround some places, causing traffic chaos here and there and putting more and more pressure on the government. But they will do it in a way that if shots were fired or protesters were clubbed, state troops would be the ones looking like the bad guys.

The government's initial strategy was patience, patience and patience, and it was generally believed that the protest could not outlive the funding. Problem is, if the campaign is costing Bt30 million a day, as some have calculated, it's not much for Thaksin. A 10-day sit-in would just cost Bt300 million, or under 1 per cent of the assets his family is supposed to get back from the state.

Informed sources last night said the government could decide to go down the risky road of declaring a state of emergency to boost the military's power in controlling the situation. This could affect the overall outlook. After all, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has looked totally non-confrontational over the past few days, basically thanking the red shirts for their peaceful approach to date.

Another important factor is Thaksin's whereabouts. If he has really been expelled from Dubai, his desperation must have naturally grown. And if he really plans to settle down in Cambodia, like news reports suggested, there will be ramifications domestically as well as bilaterally.

In his brief phone-in to supporters yesterday, he ambiguously claimed he had to leave Dubai because the United Arab Emirates government was "annoyed" by whining from Bangkok. He said he was in Europe at the moment and hoped to have a longer phone-in today.

Red leaders claim, or hope, that the number of protesters will rise to 400,000 today, four times the government's estimate. That would be a big number, but not a government-toppling number. As long as the government keeps things under control, that is.

Government advantages, administration sources said, include the military's better preparations compared with during the Songkran turbulence almost a year ago. But more crucial is the fact that the red shirts can't afford to run riot without justification this time. A repeat of the Songkran madness and they'd lose. This has led to all kinds of rumours, an outstanding one involving "fake red shirts" wreaking havoc to instigate bloodshed or provoke a crackdown.

Good news is, this stand-off is being dictated by both sides' unwillingness to look like a villain. But here's the bad news: it always starts this way. Analysis from The Nation, Bangkok.

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