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Thailand democracy enters dangerous new crossroads

BANGKOK — The leader of protesters vying to topple Thailand's prime minister says his movement will establish what amounts to a parallel government — complete with "volunteer peacekeepers" to replace the police, a "people's council" to rule and a foreign policy to go with it.

Some leading academics have slammed the scheme as undemocratic and unconstitutional. But ex-lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban's bid to seize power could become reality if the military or the judiciary intervenes, as they have in the past. Analysts say this Southeast Asian nation is at a dangerous new crossroads that could drag on, and end with more bloodshed.

"This is a combustible situation. We cannot have two governments in Bangkok running Thailand," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Chulalongkorn's Institute of Security and International Studies. "Something will have to give."

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is desperate to end weeks of political unrest that has drawn hundreds of thousands of people to protests while leaving five people dead and wounding nearly 300 more. She dissolved the lower house of Parliament on Monday and called for elections, now set for Feb. 2.

On Tuesday, Yingluck said she would not resign as caretaker head of government, despite pressure for her to step down. But she choked up when reporters asked about how she was holding up, underscoring the nation's extraordinarily fragile state.

"I'm not without emotion," she said, her voice quavering. "I'm also Thai. Do you want me not to set foot on Thai soil anymore?"

"I have retreated as far as I can," she said, just before turning and walking quickly away from the podium.

The protesters accuse Yingluck of serving as a proxy for her billionaire brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid jail time for a corruption conviction but still wields immense influence in the country.

Thaksin was deposed in a 2006 army coup that laid bare a deeper societal conflict. On one side are Thailand's elite, its largely urban middle class and staunch royalists who say he abused his power. On the other, Thaksin's power base in the countryside, particularly in the northeast, and others who benefited from his populist policies designed to win over the rural poor.

The coup triggered years of political upheaval that have proven the power of Bangkok's elite.

Controversial judicial rulings removed two pro-Thaksin prime ministers in 2008, one of whom never set foot in his Government House office: He worked for 10 weeks out of the VIP lounge of the capital's old airport until protesters evicted him from there, too. The same year, army-backed parliamentary maneuvering allowed the opposition Democrat Party — a minority that has not won an election for more than two decades — to take power for several years.

Yingluck led the ruling Pheu Thai Party to victory in 2011 elections. But anger against her government swelled after the lower house passed an amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return without going to jail. The measure was rejected in the upper house, and Yingluck has said it will not be revived.

Protesters say Pheu Thai lost its right to rule because of its support of the amnesty bill and other legislation they oppose. Yingluck and other members of her party say the constitution does not allow her to resign before elections are held — a ballot both sides know Pheu Thai would win.

Suthep, the protest leader, said Monday his movement can "not consent to allowing the dictatorial majority ... to betray the people, to destroy the balance of democratic power."

Citing a clause in the constitution stating that "the highest power is the sovereign power of the people," Suthep claimed his so-called People's Democratic Reform Committee was assuming some government functions and called on civil servants to report to it.

He said a new constitution would be written that would ban populist policies, bar corruption convictions from being pardoned and ensure that "a single party cannot control things."

Suthep urged supporters to establish neighborhood "peacekeeping forces" to replace the nation's police, who are seen as allied to Yingluck and her brother. Suthep is now wanted for insurrection, though police have not attempted to arrest him.

The reality, for now, is that no parallel government exists, and that protesters hold less ground than they did at the weekend. Ahead of a mass opposition march Monday, they withdrew from the Finance Ministry and part of a vast government complex they had occupied for a week.

Still, Thitinan said, the momentum is on the side of Suthep, whose uprising has already triggered the legislature's dissolution and reduced Yingluck's power.

The government is "at a disadvantage because they're not backed by the establishment and the powerful people in Bangkok," Thitinan said. The army has vowed neutrality, but when push comes to shove, they will side with the protesters, he said.

Thitinan said Suthep is "a front man for larger forces behind him, for the powers that be" among the elite. He said they want to "seize the reins of government because they want to preside over the transition ... we're talking about the monarchy, the succession, the constitution, the entire future of Thailand."

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, has suffered health problems for years, and anxiety over his health has grown in tandem with the country's deepening political divide. Thaksin, the ousted premier, was accused of disrespecting the king, in part by trying to curry favor with Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the heir to the throne.

Thitinan added, however, that if Yingluck is deposed, her supporters "will come back to the streets" just as they did in 2010, when pro-Thaksin "red shirt" protesters erected bamboo barricades around a vast swath of the capital's glitziest shopping district and occupied it for two months.

A brutal army crackdown eventually dispersed the crowds, but not before more than 90 people were killed and the city's skyline was engulfed in flames. Suthep, who was deputy premier at the time, ordered the crackdown and is facing murder charges for his role in it.

In the latest unrest, the army and the courts have had opportunities to dislodge Yingluck's government but have not taken them. Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has said he will not intervene, despite pleas from anti-government protesters. And in a key Constitutional Court ruling last month, judges stopped short of dissolving the ruling party.

If Yingluck can hold on until elections are held in two months, the question remains whether Democrats will boycott — a distinct possibility given its bleak prospects. The last time the Democrats staged a boycott, in 2006, the army staged a coup five months later.

The conflict is likely to "go on and on until all sides sit down and negotiate a compromise," said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political science professor in Bangkok.

"That's going to take a long, long time," she said. "There is no easy way out."