Divided but peaceful 2 years after Thai violence

Just two years ago, Thailand was at war with itself. Rifle shots and exploding grenades rang out in Bangkok as troops crushed through barricades to disperse a nine-week-old insurrection. A retired nurse was the last to capitulate.

"I stood before the soldiers and asked if they wanted to shoot me, or arrest me," said Phussadee Ngamkham, now 57, who became a hero of the Red Shirt protest movement by refusing to budge while others fled a final crackdown by soldiers on May 19, 2010, after weeks of deadly street fighting.

"At that time, I had made a promise with my Red Shirt brothers and sisters that if we didn't get democracy, I wouldn't go home," she said.

Those days of mayhem, which pitted Thailand's rural masses against a government they decried as elitist and which left at least 90 people dead and almost 2,000 injured, now seem a world away.

An election has since given an overwhelming mandate to the party most closely allied with the protesters, and the normally peaceful Buddhist country has returned to its routines and tourists to its tropical beaches.

Much of the us-versus-them vitriol has dissipated, giving way — for now — to an apparent acceptance on both sides that while neither the current government nor its predecessors are perfect, elections may be better than street violence for deciding the country's future.

On Saturday, Red Shirt supporters gathered in central Bangkok to peacefully mark the anniversary. Like most Red Shirt rallies it was to include an evening video appearance by ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra. He fled into exile after being ousted by a 2006 military coup, and was convicted of corruption in absentia.

The 2010 conflict was largely between supporters of Thaksin — whose populist policies made him the rural poor's hero — and supporters of Thailand's traditional powerholders in the royal palace and the military.

Part of the reason for the current state of peace is because Thaksin's supporters have been appeased by the new prime minister, Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra. She won her 2011 campaign by a landslide and ended the premiership of Abhisit Vejjajiva, a staunch Thaksin opponent who ordered the May 19 crackdown on anti-government protesters who were demanding that his government immediately resign.

Still, deep divisions remain, and many wonder how long this phase will last.

"It's stability on the surface. The conflicts are still there," said Michael Nelson, a Thai studies lecturer at Walailak University in southern Thailand. "It's a return to business as usual, and as long as there's no really outstanding point of conflict."

Yingluck has continued in the spirit of her brother's populist policies, cementing her rural base and winning over others who were not initially supporters. She has increased the minimum wage, handed out ample tax refunds to the budding middle class and endeared rice farmers with a new program that pays them above market rates for rice.

Many Thais who oppose Thaksin have come to terms with his sister's government, saying she has managed to maintain an uneasy but welcome calm. And Thai politics has not yet produced a viable alternative to the Thaksin camp.

"I'm not satisfied with this government, but to be honest the Abhisit government wasn't any better," said Siriluk Pornchaitipparat, an anti-Thaksin cafe owner who had to shut her central Bangkok shop for 10 days in 2010 when the Red Shirt rioting raged in her neighborhood.

"No matter how incompetent I think Yingluck is and no matter how much I'd like to reject the current government, I don't see any other choices who can compete with them effectively," she said. "Life goes on as usual but we don't know when another round of demonstrations will occur. Maybe when Thaksin returns."

Yingluck's unstated priority is to ease the way for her brother to return without serving the two-year sentence for corruption in office that he fled to avoid.

Thaksin himself has said he would like to return to Thailand this year, a prospect that would surely fire up the other camp of protesters in Thailand, known as the anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirts, who also have wreaked havoc on Bangkok streets over the past half-dozen years.

Yingluck's ruling party has pushed for a broad amnesty bill for political leaders, supporters and security forces involved in the 2010 unrest — seen as an attempt to pave the way for Thaksin's return.

New York-based Human Rights Watch warned against such a measure as an affront to reconciliation, and has criticized both Yingluck's and Abhisit's government for failing to bring to justice a single soldier or official for the scores of deaths and injuries that occurred during the political violence.

"This gives the green light for ... people in uniform to do this again next time," said Brad Adams, the group's Asia director.

At least one lasting legacy of the Red Shirt movement is the political awakening of Thailand's majority of rural and urban poor. Phussadee, the former nurse known as the "Last Red Shirt," said she'll hold the government to account regardless of whether or not it hails from her side of the country's political divide.

She said the Red-Yellow divisions in her neighborhood remain, though she is happy to note the hostility has eased.

"Without the mob mentality, people tend to think with reasons, not emotions. The Yellows are thinking what they did was not totally right and now the Red Shirts also see that the government they supported is not perfect either," she said.

"I think I have accomplished the goal that I fought for two years ago, but it's still just the first step," she said. "I'm giving this government four years before they lose my support."