The Thai Lunar New Year is usually a time when guns line the streets of Bangkok. Water guns, that is, manned by revelers who spray passersby to summon plenty of rain for the coming year's harvest. But today, as this Thai New Year began, the usual neon-hued water guns were supplanted by submachine guns held by soldiers who were trying to disperse the agitated antigovernment protesters who have blockaded part of central Bangkok for days.
Scores of people were injured and two were killed in two separate incidents on Monday. During the first pre-dawn flare-up, the government said the antigovernment crowds known as the Red Shirts for their crimson-colored clothing had provoked the conflict by lobbing Molotov cocktails at troops. The government claimed that 23 soldiers were wounded by the protesters; for their part, the antigovernment forces countered that the soldiers had fired at them and that six of their own had been killed by army bullets a charge the military denies. (See pictures of the 2008 protests in Bangkok.)
The clashes marked yet another unhappy chapter in Thailand's seemingly endless crisis between two political forces, which each claim the mantle of democratic fervor and populist sentiment as their own. Last year, yellow-shirted antigovernment protesters drawn heavily from the middle classes occupied Thailand's seat of power for months and besieged Bangkok's international airport for a week. The Yellow Shirts' aim? To force the then government to step down because they considered the ruling party to be a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 army coup. In December, the courts dissolved that ruling party for electoral fraud, and the opposition, led by current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, formed a coalition government.
Now the Red Shirts, who draw much of their support from the rural heartland and tend to still pledge allegiance to Thaksin, are occupying the streets around Bangkok's Government House calling for Abhisit's ouster. Roads normally clogged with traffic are eerily empty, with commandeered public buses and rows of smoldering tires serving as impromptu demarcations of Red Shirt territory. Over the weekend, red-hued crowds managed to deluge an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit held at a beach resort near Bangkok, forcing some world leaders to evacuate the premises by helicopter. The conference was hastily canceled. "Even if [the government] manages to end the protest, it will not be the end," said Kraisak Choonhavan, a prominent member of the ruling Democrat Party. "The divisions are too deep ... This conflict is going to go on for a long time."
That's bad news for Thailand, whose export-oriented economy has already been battered by the global financial downturn. The continuing political crisis will only exacerbate Thailand's economic woes, as foreign countries issue travel warnings that could dissuade badly needed tourists in an industry that employs more than 3 million people. On April 12, Abhisit declared a state of emergency in Bangkok, the same day the Prime Minister's motorcade was attacked by a red-hued mob wielding sticks and bars. Earlier in the day, one Red Shirt leader, Jatuporn Prompan, had called on his fellow protesters to attack Abhisit in order to hasten the government's ouster. That evening, Thaksin who is in self-imposed exile presumably because of a two-year conflict-of-interest jail sentence by a Thai court added fuel to the fire by saying the time might be right for a "revolution." (Read a TIME Q&A with Thaksin.)
On Monday, at the Red Shirts' makeshift headquarters in the shadow of Bangkok's neo-Italianate Government House, protest leader Jatuporn vowed to continue his crusade until Abhisit leaves office. "Once the army kills the Red Shirts, then the Red Shirts will rise up and fight," he told TIME as a group of protesters with badges that read "Red Guards" nodded in agreement. "It's not my plan to make violence like this, but our people will stand up and fight."
A former student leader during the violently crushed demonstrations in 1992, Jatuporn is also calling for the resignation of Prem Tinsulanonda, a close adviser to Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Thaksin and Jatuporn allege that Prem was the instigator of the 2006 coup that unseated Thaksin, a charge Prem denies. Thailand's King does not normally comment on political matters, and he has made no public statement about the recent crisis.
Back at Red Shirt central, a pair of Buddhist monks calmly ate rice and curry, as angry protesters milled around them, brandishing photographs they said proved that soldiers had fired directly at the Red Shirts. "I came not to protest but to cheer up people who are fighting for justice," said Pramaha Chartree, from the Sotorn temple. Last summer, at nearly the same place, other monks said almost the same thing but in support of the Yellow Shirt crowds who had camped out in front of Government House. When even monks find their loyalties divided, there promises to be no easy karmic fix for this predominantly Buddhist kingdom.
With reporting by Robert Horn / Bangkok