Even viewing the spectacle from afar, it is utterly brutal on the emotions to observe an otherwise wondrous people and culture tearing itself in two. No one who has ever been treated to the endless charm and hospitality of the Thai people could be blamed for practically breaking into tears over the sight of the crackdown in Bangkok.

The sadness before us: the transformation of the land of the smiles into the frowns of the clowns. Clowns, in a sense, yes — because the responsible people of Thailand, on both sides, surely know better than to have let it come down to this. Even if the eventual end point of this prolonged convulsion is a properly politically integrated Thailand, the short-term cost will be enormous. Forget about tourism and forget about foreign investment, the prerequisite for which is political stability.

Until recently, in fact, Thailand offered stability in considerable abundance. The politics of the country revolved around the ritual of the monarchy. The people’s perception of the king and his court as the nation’s benevolent if unassertive hub minimized the importance of the politicians and seemed to suffuse the entire political culture with a kind of saffron softness.

That began to change with the so-called coup that really wasn’t a coup, in the classical sense. A democratically elected parliamentary government (that some in the highest of palace circles were “reportedly” unwilling to tolerate) was ousted by military force. This was in 2006, the result of which was to transport popular Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra into exile. The king therefore was still the king. This is why it was an odd kind of coup.

You have undoubtedly heard many bad things about the fleeing Thaksin. That the multibillionaire telecom business mogul was corrupt. Or that he violated the law. Or was a demagogue. Or sat on the press like an elephant. Or evaded taxes. Indeed, by the time he fled, he had been accused of almost everything. Some of this had some truth. But it is also a fact that not only was Thaksin elected in 2001 via a landslide, but also that his overwhelming re-election in 2005 came amid the highest voter turnout in Thai history. Why? For one thing, the Thaksin government reduced rural poverty by 50 percent while in office and put together a universal health care program for the first time in the country’s existence.

But — yes — he was tough on political enemies. And he was nails-hard on drug traffickers, for this self-made man thought that Singapore’s tough drug policy seemed to the only effective approach. And on the international stage Thailand seemed to have sprung into new life, especially under the suave and warm Kantathi Suphamongkhon, the country’s 39th foreign minister and surely one of its best.

But in zero-sum democracies, where someone’s gain is perceived as another’s loss, Thaksin seemed too much for the palace and its associated cronies. They were, generally speaking, to be nestled in and among the coddled urban elite for whom the country’s locked-in rural poverty was in effect a subprime mortgage free ride to riches. But the sleepy, ever-smiling rural masses woke up. And, accurately, some of the elites blamed Thaksin for that. And so, roughly speaking, this is where the battle line is now drawn.

What is the U.S. interest in this impending civil war? Once Thailand was a linchpin against the spread of communism. But when that urgency evaporated, the country’s profile on the U.S. radar shrunk. Such de-prioritization is a terrible miscalculation. Thailand, with a population close to 70 million, is a key player in the Association of Southeast Asian States. And the way Asia is booming economically, don’t be surprised if in 10 years ASEAN seems more like NATO than the “talkathon” organization of yore.

America is represented in Bangkok by a U.S. foreign service officer, Eric G. John. This means that he is not ignorant of the country to which he has been assigned, as is the case with so many of the U.S. political appointees. But some of his preliminary comments seemed to tilt against the “red shirt” democracy protesters. It might be better if John were to say nothing at all than to chant anything approaching “God save the king” at a time like this. The cleavage between the crown and a growing number of his people seems wide.

It may even be time to consider a U.N.-supervised ceasefire, and a U.N.-supervised nationwide election. Already, at this writing, casualties are mounting exponentially. A great country is burning. Indeed, if it weren’t for one’s appreciation of the otherwise live-and-let-live talent of the Thai people, you’d be tempted to worry that the land of the smiles is veering in the direction of a failed state.

Tom Plate is a veteran journalist. © 2010 Pacific Perspective Media Center.

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