The genesis of the strife lies in the election of Thaksin Shinawatra as Prime Minister eight years ago. A populist, he wrested the support of the impoverished peasantry from the privileged by promising cheap loans and improved education and healthcare. The urban elite and middle classes, seeing a threat to their previously unchallenged hegemony, organised street demonstrations that led in 2006 to a military coup.
Democracy was restored the following year and for most of the period since, a succession of pro-Thaksin politicians have served as Prime Minister. One by one, they have been ejected from power by court rulings, some on trumped-up charges condoned by a pliant judiciary, and, most recently, last December, by yellow-shirted protesters who closed Bangkok's two airports, stranding hundreds of thousands of tourists. In the aftermath, Abhisit Vejjajiva, the leader of the ironically named Democrat Party, secured just enough parliamentary support to become Prime Minister.
The ambition of Mr Vejjajiva, and his supporters, a mixture of royalists, professionals, academics and retired military, is nothing less than to deny the vote to Thailand's peasants. They claim the idea of a one-person, one-vote system is compromised by the lack of education and susceptibility to vote-buying of the country's rural majority. Instead, they say, the rich and privileged should choose rural representatives based on profession and social grouping. Even the most potentially believable aspect of that notion has, however, been dismantled by the peasantry's immunity to vote-buying when overwhelmingly supporting Mr Thaksin and, after his party was disbanded, proxies for him.
He and his supporters will continue to insist Mr Thaksin and his political allies are guilty of corruption and other shortcomings. But whatever the truth of such claims, the more important issue is their determination to thwart universal suffrage. While they go to untenable lengths to put democracy on the backburner, Thailand and its people suffer. The more dogmatic that Mr Vejjajiva and the military become, the greater is the potential for the violence and the damage to escalate. The smiles will return to Thailand only when there is an acceptance of democracy.