Rival protest movements staged mass rallies in Bangkok on Friday putting themselves on a dangerous collision course that has heightened fears of a long-term civil conflict.
Tens of thousands of red-shirted supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra held their daily boisterous rally in a ritzy district of hotels and malls in central Bangkok demanding parliament be immediately dissolved for elections.
In another part of the capital around 20,000 people in a new protest movement known as the "multi-colours" rallied in Bangkok's old quarter.
Representing Bangkok's middle classe, they are getting fed up with disruptions to the city from the prolonged protests and the damage it is creating to business and livelihoods and are now taking to the streets themselves.
"We want the red shirts to leave and stop bringing harm to the people, to stop using their bombs and their rifles to kill," Tul Suttisomwong, the group's leader, told Reuters.
A glimmer of light in the tunnel came on Friday when the "red shirts" offered to resume talks with the government that collapsed late last month, offering a 30-day timeframe for parliamentary dissolution.
But the city remained tense after one person was killed and 88 wounded -- including four foreigners -- on Thursday after M-79 grenades landed near a crowd of pro-government protesters taunting "red shirts" massed behind their barricade of tyres and bamboo poles.
Somjai Phagaphasvivat, a political science professor at Bangkok's Thammasat University, said the emergence of rival movements could spell danger. "There are now two conflicting groups so near to each other and this kind of confrontation could create havoc and turmoil," he said.
Hardcore elements arming
The tensions and brinkmanship reflect deep divisions in Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy, pitting the urban middle class, business elites and royalists against rural and urban poor -- branded communists or republicans by their opponents.
Adding to a combustible mix, is a "yellow shirt" movement that in 2008 helped bring down two prime ministers, blocked airports and shut down government headquarters for 193 days. It has threatened to hold its "biggest ever" rally if the crisis is not resolved by Sunday.
Worse still, splits along similar colour-coded lines in the royalist military, one of the country's most rock-solid institutions, have led to concerns that troops might join militant factions of the protest movements.
Many analysts believe this may have already happened.
A protracted civil conflict that would have been unthinkable in the "Land of Smiles" five years ago is now being talked about.
"If bombs are launched by pro-government supporters, a new two-camp 'civil war' seems to be in the making," Kim Eng Securities said in an alarming note to clients on Friday.
Many in Bangkok expect -- some hope -- troops might try to forcibly evict thousands of red-shirted protesters from their fortified encampment in a luxury shopping district.
Thailand's army chief again insisted on Friday that would not happen because it "would do more harm than good".
Fears are mounting that hardcore elements on either side could also be arming themselves, and any offensive could result in massive casualties on both sides and lead to a broader conflict.
"The ensuing social melee will be widespread and uncontrollable," the Bangkok Post said in an editorial on Friday. "These difference are something that we have to deal with, not kill one another for."
ReutersLast Mod: 24 Nisan 2010, 11:46