Thailand: Will It Be Civil War?

>BANGKOK -- For months, the Western and Asian punditry alike have brooded over the threat of a Thai civil war.

Outside of academic circles and op-ed pages, however, this scenario has been largely regarded as hysterical. The silliness seemed to peak last month when charitable groups attempted showings of "Hotel Rwanda" in Bangkok on huge outdoor screens -- a cautionary tale for Thais consumed with class hatred.

But now, the Thai capital looks, smells, and sounds like war. Rifle fire crackles throughout the day. On back alleys, protesters vowing to end the "rule of elites" concoct molotov cocktails from spent bottles of Red Bull.

As I write this, pyres demarcating nighttime conflict zones light up glass skyscrapers with a hellish glow. And for the second consecutive night, explosions rumble outside my balcony's sliding glass door.

Bangkok is 10 weeks and more than 60 deaths into a stand-off between the military-backed government and a faction of self-proclaimed "commoners" -- the Red Shirts -- that insists the ruling party must fall.

In recent days, the army has resorted to picking off protesters (the top brass calls them "terrorists") with sniper rifles from afar. But the Red Shirts have defended their encampment: two-square miles of Bangkok's priciest real estate, fortified with concertina wire and bamboo staves.

As Bangkok slips further into chaos, it's unclear if even the Red Shirt guiding statesmen can turn back the legions of Thai men (and some women) wading into near suicidal combat.

"We must accept death," said Pichet Taweesin, a 40-year-old day laborer tending a flaming wall of truck tires. Nearby, teenagers snapped cell phone photos of their friends, striking hooligan poses while gripping homemade gas bombs.

"No one here wants to become a victim," he said. "But I've seen dead bodies of my brothers and sisters in the movement every day. I'm not afraid to die." In another 45 minutes, the crowd we stood in would scramble for cover as rifle bullets pecked at the asphalt.

The army, in testing the protesters' promises to "fight to the death," has drawn thousands of Pichets to these urban front lines. That so many within the Red Shirt camp are compelled to extremism, however, is a partly monster of the movement's own creation.

Broadly speaking, the Red Shirts are a loose assemblage encompassing the disgruntled laboring classes, new-money Thais with an anti-establishment grudge and, as many in the Thai media allege, poor Thais paid about $13 a day to rally.

The guiding leadership -- parliamentarians, aging activists and celebrities -- often invoke the language of non-violent, civil disobedience. But the movement has also tolerated a militant streak, personified by a renegade army major general -- Khattiya "Seh Daeng" Sawisdipol -- who flouted superiors and ordered his personal militia to protect protesters with force.

Khattiya died on May 17, days after taking a sniper's bullet to the temple in a killing the government disavows. His political martyrdom was one of the sparks igniting the street violence that's since engulfed Bangkok.

Khattiya's disciples' sense of invincibility was also fostered by the military itself, which for weeks allowed protesters to push the government around before responding with extreme force.

Since rallies began in mid-March, protesters have mobbed Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's offices and private residence, splattering his gates with their own blood in a ritual curse. They have climbed parliament's gates and yanked guns from security forces.

Even troops themselves fled a bloody raid last month after mysterious black-clad men with rifles -- linked to Seh Daeng by government spokesmen -- emerged and fired back. A throng of protesters later took troops hostage, seized dozens of assault rifles and dismantled six armed personnel carriers with tools and bare hands.

As this conflict has dragged on, sober voices inside the movement have grown noticeably quieter. One of the camp's most moderate statesman, Veera Musikapong, has not appeared in public for days. The Thai media has ruminated over a split within the Red Shirts that has left hardliners with more sway.

Remaining Red Shirt leaders, however, insist they are but slingshot-toting Davids, they say, ground down by Goliaths with power, influence and assault rifles.

But moderate Red Shirt supporters such as Prateep Ungsongtham Hata, a renowned slum activist, openly fret the movement is sliding towards a more shadowy, militant incarnation. By setting up a safe haven for less-daring protesters outside the conflict zone, she has attempted to lend a sense of orderly demonstration to the battles raging just a mile away.

"There are two ways out of this," Prateep explained, ducking into an empty guard shack. The windows were papered over with yesterday's newsprint to provide concealment from snipers.

"The government can stop the killing. The two sides can start chatting," she said. "But the government leaders will have to stop always pointing the finger at us and point it at themselves."

As for civil war?

"If the government keeps on killing," she said, "these people will go underground, basing themselves in the provinces. When you can't fight openly, you become unseen."

Prateep's eyes settled on a newspaper, pasted over the window and illuminated by sunlight. In the lead photo, blood pooled beneath the head of a protester shot dead the day before.

"Honestly, I'm very depressed," she said. "I never thought it would come to this."