BANGKOK, Thailand -- In the royal splendor of the Grand Palace's Chakri Throne Hall, invited dignitaries included the prime minister, a princess, a former military junta leader, America's newly arrived ambassador and others at a black-tie awards presentation.

But while a scrumptious banquet dinner was cooking, many guests hungered for updates about the thousands of people protesting in the grimy streets a few miles away.

Under paintings of past monarchs, and in front of an exquisite 200-year-old pillowed throne on display, army officers chatted about the possibility of Thailand descending into a violent revolution, or yet another coup, or seemingly Machiavellian moves by the military-backed government and their opponents to win the next election.

Guests punctuated their remarks by acknowledging the invited dignitaries, who included Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the 2006 coup's junta leader, retired Supreme Army Commander Gen. Surayud Chulanont, who is now a member of the king's Privy Council of personal advisers.

The new U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie Kenney, was also present at the evening's medical awards ceremony hosted by the popular Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

Some guests, including army officers, warned that the Red Shirts' newest twice-monthly street blockades, which attracted 30,000 Reds during January, might escalate into a repeat of the April and May insurrection and clashes with the military, which left 91 people dead, mostly civilians.

One army officer said former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in the bloodless 2006 coup by the U.S.-trained military, was fading away while in self-imposed exile abroad.

Some Red Shirts were now sinisterly squeezing the corrupt billionaire for money, claiming to support him, but actually hoping to finance newer politicians in their post-Thaksin scheme, the officer said.

He grimaced while reflecting on a new street blockade by the Reds' enemies, about 5,000 Yellow Shirts, who are desperately trying to stoke nationalist fever, topple the government, and push Thailand into a shooting war with Cambodia over their disputed border.

Revengeful Yellow Shirts feel left out of the present government, after mobilizing street demonstrations during Mr. Thaksin's administration, paving the way for the 2006 coup.

Under massive chandeliers, some guests wanly hoped Army Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha was telling the truth when he insisted during the past several days that he "did not want to stage a coup," despite his role in the September 2006 putsch.

"The 2006 coup did not solve anything and only helped fuel and deepen the divisions we still face," wrote Bangkok Post Editor-in-Chief Pichai Cheunsuksawadi on Tuesday (February 1).

"Please, no more coups."

The Grand Palace's reception rooms echoed optimism about Prime Minister Abhisit's coalition winning the next election before his term runs out at the end of 2011, or at least forming another coalition even if they had to use sleaze and muscle to outnumber the popular Reds.

Meanwhile, outside in the balmy night, the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts were dividing Bangkok's streets to stage rival demonstrations, while security forces hoped to keep them apart and stop possible provocateurs.

The Yellow Shirts became pariahs when they blockaded Bangkok's two international airports in November 2008, stranding more than 300,000 passengers worldwide for eight days and crippling this Buddhist Southeast Asian nation's capitalist economy.

Fear and cynicism have now permeated Thailand to the point that when police on Jan. 24 arrested a suspect allegedly carrying two homemade bombs to bloody the Yellow Shirts' street blockade, politicians and the media questioned whether or not the police were lying.

The Yellow Shirts have been mocking Prime Minister Abhisit and the military for refusing to open fire against Cambodia, after seven Yellow supporters illegally walked across the disputed border on Dec. 29 and were jailed in Cambodia.

Five were released on Jan. 23, but Cambodia sentenced two hard-core Yellow Shirts to six and eight years in prison on Feb. 1 for illegal entry and spying.

Thailand's military, meanwhile, insisted the army were not scared of Cambodia's hardened army.

"We soldiers are strong and are afraid of no one," Defense Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwon said on Jan. 27. "Don't brand us as softies."

Despite the urban unrest, Bangkok's repressive state of emergency was recently lifted, and the lively capital is now clamped under a slightly less harsh Internal Security Act.

The government is allowing the Red and Yellow street protests, hoping they will remain peaceful and not require the armored personnel carriers, army snipers and other weaponry used during last spring's Red insurrection.

International investors, merchants, hotel owners and others, however, complain that Bangkok's frequently blocked streets are causing them to lose millions of dollars.

Tourists have been relatively safe, but many are holidaying elsewhere because some streets have again become chaotic.

Meanwhile, inside the Chakri Throne Hall, an orchestra played while banquet guests toasted polite, non-political speeches with white wine.

The last monarch to reside in the Grand Palace, 100 years ago, was King Rama V. Since then, the royal family has lived in Chitrlada Palace, in a different area of Bangkok.

The ornate Grand Palace is now used for royal ceremonies, such as the banquet on Jan. 26 when Princess Sirindhorn presented five Prince Mahidol Awards, totaling $100,000, to three American and two British experts for their role in medicine and public health.


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of Hello My Big Big Honey!, a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is:

Asia Correspondent

(Copyright 2011 Richard S Ehrlich)