If you are at all interested in Thailand - as a tourist, businessperson or simply an intrigued observer - you should pay very close to attention to what happens now. The attempted assassination early yesterday of Sondhi Limthongkul, a major rival of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, puts the nation that was until recently Southeast Asia's beacon of democracy and relative stability at the edge of an abyss. In the three years of political tension that marked the last days of Thaksin and intensified after the military coup that ousted him, the fear of a violent and protracted conflict, even civil war, has always been there, if largely unspoken. Angry protest is one thing, targeted political killings are quite another. A range of political, government and diplomatic sources across Thailand fear the shooting could be the spark that ignites the short fuse of the political powder keg that has been the last three years. It could enrage the pro-establishment 'yellow shirts' - who closed Bangkok's airports last December - and bring them back out on the streets, or promote retaliation from other military or political quarters. Only creative and resolute leadership - in short supply on all sides so far - to heal political wounds meaningfully could stop the degeneration into further violence. On paper, at least, those divisions are just too great to be easily bridged. On the one hand sit the establishment elites of Bangkok, still fearful that somehow billionaire Thaksin will return to rebuild his political machine and rule Thailand as a dictator for decades, reshaping it in his own image. Their worst fear is that he will take advantage of any royal weakness after the passing of Thailand's revered but ageing monarch, 81-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej. On the other are the supporters of Thaksin, mostly from the rural north and poor northeast. This is where most Thai voters live, and Thaksin was the first Thai prime minister to fully engage and empower them, luring them with dirt-cheap health care and village loans. In return, they made Thaksin the most popular elected leader in Thai history - the first prime minister to lead his party successfully into a second election and an outright majority. The volatility of the pro-Thaksin 'red shirts' in recent days as they stormed a key regional meeting, sending leaders fleeing by helicopter, and then battled troops in Bangkok, has hinted at the anger that remains in the countryside. 'In [northern] Chiang Mai, we talk of the day when we draw a line under us and tell Bangkok, go away, this is ours now,' a student said yesterday. Such language was unthinkable just a few years ago in a country that is proud of its freedoms and independence. They are angry at not getting their voices heard after three elections - two before the coup and the pro-Thaksin election victory that followed. They are also angry at favouritism towards pro-government activists, yet to be charged for shutting down the airports, costing the nation hundreds of millions of dollars. Young anti-Thaksin Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, Democrat Party leader, has won wide praise for getting on top of the situation in the past week. And an already apparently desperate Thaksin has done himself no favours by inciting a 'people's revolution' from a six-star hotel in Dubai only to talk of reconciliation two days later. Many ordinary people are annoyed at the tactics of his supporters. But yesterday's shooting points to a darker truth; the divisions may well linger beyond Thaksin. The establishment fix is in and he appears to be running out of time, money and options. If he fades from the scene, the anger he has inspired may still fester. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, one of Thailand's leading political scientists, has noted that suppressing such anti-establishment movements will be far harder for a government than before. In the 1970s, successive Thai governments used the threat of communism to wipe out all manner of rebel movements, often with brutal, paralegal tactics. 'This government doesn't have the excuse of communism now ... if the red shirts really go on the rampage, it is much harder to stop them without igniting something worse,' he said recently. Mr Abhisit, an avowed liberal and a democrat who preaches clean government, has yet to win an election. At some point, he will have to go to the polls to secure the legitimacy that is obviously so crucial to ruling Thailand effectively. The staging of those elections in a peaceful manner is now ever harder to imagine. Thailand has taken a very dark turn.