Martin Petty: Thai coup not on cards – at least not yet

BLOOD has been spilled. Armed troops are guarding the streets of the capital.

Protests pushing for new elections have spiralled into anarchy, and the government is all at sea. The climate is ripe for yet another military intervention in coup-prone Thailand, except for one thing – the army wants to keep the prime minister in power.

Despite potentially dangerous splits within the military's ranks, and a bloody but futile attempt to put down a stubborn and provocative anti-government movement, most analysts say a putsch is not on the horizon, at least not yet.

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They say the army might be lukewarm about premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, who came to power in December 2008 after the army brokered a deal in parliament, but as long as he stands firm against the red-shirted supporters of ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra, a coup will not be necessary.

The bone of contention is an annual reshuffle of the powerful military due in September, when the royalist top brass will hand power to protgs groomed to maintain a status quo that favours Thailand's influential business and establishment elites.

If a government allied to Thaksin came to power, it would almost certainly lead to an overhaul in the military's chain of command.

An army purged of royalists and loyal to Thaksin would be a doomsday scenario for a military that believes the country's revered monarchy is under attack from Thaksin and the "red shirts" – a claim the protesters vehemently deny.

That threat, insiders say, is why a coup cannot be dismissed.

However, the prospect of another junta in power would upset investors in south-east Asia's second-biggest economy, given how maladroit the last army-appointed government was. Among its economic bungles were capital control measures that panicked investors and led to a near 15 per cent stock market plunge.

Clashes last week ended six weeks of gains in the market. Economists say more unrest and political paralysis will lead to further credit-rating downgrades and turn long-term investors away from a country once hailed as a safe bet for business.

Adding to the tensions, a challenge to the army comparable to that of the "red shirts" is coming from within its own ranks. The government and army leaders fear there are spies in the ranks, leaking information to "red shirts" in a bid to bring about a snap election and usher in a return of pro-Thaksin generals who were demoted when the billionaire was toppled.

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One dangerous scenario being floated by some "red shirt" leaders is how political splits that have emerged in the military might see troops take up arms independently, side with protesters, and face off with their fellow soldiers.

The army is known to have many "red shirt" sympathisers, especially among the rank and file, referred to by many Thais as "watermelons" – green on the outside but red in the middle.

Attitudes have hardened after last week's clashes and another, perhaps bigger, crackdown appears likely, with neither the army nor protesters willing to back down.

Danny Richards, an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit, said an imminent coup was unlikely, but that could all change if the crisis intensifies. "It's a stalemate, and something has to give," he said.