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Thailand: Treadmill or Tipping Point

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Thailand's year of living dangerously may be grinding to a conclusion. But is it moving to another stage -- or just another venue?

For months, huge anti-corruption, pro-democracy marches have brought hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions as protestors claim, of peaceful but angry demonstrators into the streets of Bangkok. Large encampments and nonstop rallies have blocked some of the city's major arteries and government buildings.

But now the protestors may be shifting gears. By bringing this city of more than 8 million to a standstill, they have tried to topple the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra who governs by proxy for her exiled brother, businessman and exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, less affectionately referred to as "Mr. T." Thaksin was a highly suspect businessman whom many claimed bought his way to head of the government in 2001. He then used his position to further his business interests and his family's vast financial empire.

Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in 2006, convicted by Thailand Supreme Court's Criminal Division for abuse of power, guilty among other things of egregiously using his power to secure public lands at auction for his wife. Thaksin fled to Dubai rather than face prison. Over $1 billion of his Thai financial empire remains frozen. But from Dubai, he engineered a coup to install his inexperienced younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra as his puppet ruler, the new Prime Minister of Thailand. Through her, Mr. T is seeking a pardon and the right to return to access his vast fortune.

Through the brother and sister combination, the Shinawatra Regime has continued their economic consolidation and abuse of power, engineering questionable election returns and antagonizing large segments of the population with their favoritist policies. Their recent proposal to divide Thailand into two, to strengthen their northern base, did not endear them to the rest of the country. An attempt to bribe farmers by promising high rice payments has not been honored as the economy and the government's ability to pay has faltered.

The army has remained largely neutral, observing restraint in the face of the large protests. The same cannot be said of the police. Police have beaten demonstrators though they dare not dismantle the many barricades that have forced traffic rerouting of major streets and around government buildings. Video widely circulating on the Internet indicates police involvement in a bombing that resulted in four deaths last week.

But the Shinawatra Regime has largely and somewhat successfully tried to wait out the demonstrators. This nonaction may be having an effect, as in the last few days demonstrators have pulled back, regrouping their positions in the Lumpini Park District. People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban maintains that support for government change remains strong. Demonstrators along the barricades agree. "We are right and we will win," volunteered a woman group leader, from under her bandana. Others carrying flags and whistles enthusiastically concurred. Marneenate Rugkiate, a professional guide, warned that Mr. T was dangerous, but was optimistic that his family's hold on the country was slipping. "We are choosing democracy over corruption!"

Despite the persistence and enthusiasm of the street, judgement on the Shinawatra Dynasty now seems headed to the courts. As the stalemate in the streets winds on, the corruption charges have wound through the courts, seemingly advancing toward resolution. The Supreme Court has already condemned Mr. T while Yingluck is still trying to fight off charges by the National Anti-Corruption Commission and avoid removal by the judiciary. Meanwhile the upper house of the Thai representative government which would initiate impeachment proceedings is subject to elections at the end of March. Demonstrators including the PDRC reformers have roundly attacked these elections as rigged by the Shinawatra Regime.

So far the regime has been constrained from conducting fraudulent elections and implementing their proposals to pardon the prime minister's brother, remove the criminal charges, unfreeze his assets and allow him to return to Thailand. But should the court proceed with its indictment of the regime, they threaten unleashing the violence of their red-shirted vigilantes which have already resulted in sporadic violence and death. Then presumably the army will have to abandon its posture of neutrality to intervene. But on which side might that be?