IT TOOK several anxious days, and a lethal grenade attack, for Thailand’s warring sides to reach a tentative peace deal. Its unravelling was swift and disheartening, and brings Thailand back to the brink of further unrest. On April 23rd red-shirt protesters, who are camped out in Bangkok’s shopping district, revised their demand for snap elections, saying a three-month timetable was acceptable. Peace seemed to have broken out, to the relief of residents braced for another violent showdown between security forces and the red shirts, whose rallies attract tens of thousands.
But the next day the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, shot down the peace plan. He said he would not be forced into dissolving Parliament, which is the rallying cry of the red shirts’ six-week-long protest in the capital. In a taped interview broadcast on April 25th, Mr Abhisit held out little hope of a compromise. He said his government was working to retake the streets from the demonstrators, without giving details, and said his solution “may not please everyone”. By his side, in a show of unity, was the head of the army, General Anupong Paochinda, who has been resisting pressure from government and military hawks to crack down hard. He wants a political compromise to end the crisis. He may not get one.
The seizure of Bangkok’s tourist and shopping hub is choking the city's economic recovery. Several luxury hotels and malls have been closed for weeks. Companies are pulling out expatriate staff. A grenade attack on April 22nd against a crowd of pro-government protesters that killed one person and injured dozens more has alarmed business people. Many foreign governments promptly warned their citizens against non-essential travel to Bangkok.
But a bloody attack on a sprawling fortified encampment could deal an even worse blow to Thailand’s reputation for stability. Few believe that a crackdown would silence the calls for political change. Indeed, it may inflame a movement that has the support of working-class and rural Thais who already feel cheated by Bangkok’s royalist elite and its political wing. Inside the red shirts’ squalid bamboo-fenced encampment, televisions screen bloody footage of the April 10th clashes with security forces that left 25 dead and over 800 injured.
Protests are starting to spread in the north east, a stronghold of Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted as prime minister in the 2006 coup and still a hero to many red shirts. Over the past week, protesters have blocked a train carrying troops and equipment, and obstructed police units on their way to the capital. Power lines and a fuel-storage tank have also been targeted by unknown bombers, whose sabotage thankfully failed. After four years of political upheaval, Thai newspapers fret over the risk of all-out civil strife.
The army could still be used to disperse protesters. By offering no clear alternatives to the scotched peace deal, Mr Abhisit may be leaning that way, urged on by royalist backers who see no need for a truce. He is right to argue that holding another election will not solve Thailand’s protracted crisis. There is also a risk that raising a mob to force an election becomes an accepted part of the political process. In 2008, Mr Abhisit was the beneficiary of a yellow-shirted revolt that closed Bangkok’s international airports. Now he finds himself isolated in his own party and increasingly out of his depth. “I don’t know what is keeping him there,” muses a Western diplomat.
The danger for Thailand is that there are people on both sides who want to escalate the crisis. Gunmen with military weapons showed up on April 10th to aid the red shirts, who profess nonviolence. One reason why the army is hesitating is that it knows resistance would greet any move into the red-shirt camp. In his joint appearance with Mr Abhisit, General Anupong admitted that some of his troops are conspiring with the red shirts. Some active officers, and other retired soldiers, may have fought alongside the protesters, he said. Still, he added, the army is unified and supporting the government. This was not very comforting. Meanwhile, the country waits to see who makes the first move.