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BURNING ISSUE

Turning point seems to be close, but what will it bring?

AFTER ALMOST four months in a political vacuum, the situation on Bangkok's streets appears to be nearing a climax - leaving the big question of how this ongoing conflict will end and whether it will be good or bad for the country.

There have been some clear signals the end is approaching. The government has stepped up its counterattacks against the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). The anti-government group has failed to oust the Pheu Thai-led administration of Yingluck Shinawatra, although it managed to mobilise several thousand supporters in its three mass rallies since last November. Its campaign called for reforms before the next election.

The PDRC's ongoing "Bangkok shutdown" rally, which began on January 13, again has failed to cause a severe impact on the government, which opted at first not to use force on the protesters. However, protest sites were attacked repeatedly with gunfire and explosions, mostly at night, and the authorities blamed a mysterious "third party" - despite, in some cases, the suspected assailants being recorded on security cameras carrying out their attacks.

The government persists in portraying itself as adhering to the democratic way and the principles of change through election, while painting the protesters as undemocratic, particularly after the PDRC boycotted the February 2 election.

However, approaches have been changing after the government's Centre for Maintaining Peace and Order (CMPO), led by caretaker Labour Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung, began its campaign to reclaim the protest sites on Valentine's Day.

Another such operation on Tuesday at the Phan Fah Lilat Bridge led to clashes between crowd-control police and protesters. Five people were killed, including both protesters and police. A separate operation at the Energy Ministry was completed successfully as police managed to seize back the ministry compound and arrested more than 100 protesters.

Somkiat Pongpaiboon, a PDRC leader who was arrested and detained during Tuesday's police operation near Government House, said he was freed shortly afterwards by three anonymous "men in black" after the police were attacked.

Chalerm, who heads the CMPO, said police operations to reclaim protest sites would continue - which could mean more violence and victims and lead the government into an impasse.

Also, the National Anti-Corruption Commission has found grounds to press charges against caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for alleged negligence and dereliction of duty over the government's controversial rice-subsidy scheme. This may result in criminal prosecution and impeachment proceedings if the anti-graft agency is unhappy with her explanation. The prime minister will be suspended from duty if the anti-graft agency formally indicts her - another factor that could push the government into a corner.

With the CMPO's use of force and the legal problems facing the prime minister, an end of some sort could be at hand. However, it is difficult to predict whether such a conclusion will be favourable or damaging to Thailand.


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