After weeks of relatively peaceful anti-government demonstrations, Thai protests have alarmingly turned violent. At least three people died and dozens were injured in shootings during a pro-government counter-rally over the weekend.
Security forces, which until now have been restrained in their response, have started using water cannons and tear gas. Clearly, the protesters against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra have gone too far in trying to occupy key government offices and encourage the military to topple a democratically elected government.
The mass protests, orchestrated by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister who himself is facing murder charges in the killings of pro-Thaksin protesters when he was in government in 2010, have made their point. His supporters have, with some justification, accused Yingluck's government of incompetence and corruption, though that is something of which practically every Thai government in recent years can be accused.
The trigger point of the current turmoil was the government's failed attempt to pass a political amnesty bill, seen by critics as an attempt to allow Yingluck's brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to return from exile. The telecoms tycoon, who was removed from office in a military coup in 2006, remains a powerful if divisive figure in Thai politics. His sister Yingluck's Puea Thai party enjoys widespread support among the rural poor. But even after the amnesty bill was shelved, Suthep and his supporters saw an opening to press ahead. They have the backing of the wealthy and educated elite based primarily in Bangkok.
That is the underlying cause of Thai political instability, which sets the rural poor against an entrenched establishment. The wealthy urban elite seems only able to accept democratic outcomes when their figureheads win elections.
So far, the Thai economy, the second largest in Southeast Asia, has weathered the strains well in the past several years, but growth has slowed significantly in the past few quarters. It's unclear which side the military will end up supporting. Suthep is openly calling for Yingluck to quit. But despite her many flaws, she has a legitimate democratic mandate.
If the political turmoil persists or the military decides it's time to intervene, Thai democracy and the economy will be the real losers.