When travelling around Thailand, it's easy to see the country as the travel industry would like you to: a "land of smiles," with the gracious locals welcoming the world to their country's famed beaches, temples and restaurants. It's an especially charming place during Songkran, the water festival that marks the start of the new year in Southeast Asia, when the streets of Bangkok are the scene of the world's largest and most cheerful water fight.
It's sometimes difficult to believe that this was the same city that was wracked by very real gun battles two years ago, a shootout that left at least 91 people dead as the military crushed "Red Shirt" protesters bent on bringing down the government of then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. (The climax, on May 19, 2010, was one of the longest nights of my life, spent ducking live fire and tending to the wounded inside a temple that was supposed to be a sanctuary from the violence).
Since then, things have mercifully calmed. The Red Shirts were briefly mollified by the victory of their candidate, Yingluck Shinawatra, in last year's general election. She, of course, is the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist ex-prime minister – and de facto Red Shirt leader – who was ousted in a 2006 coup and has lived in self-imposed exile for the past four years.
Their opponents – supporters of Mr. Abhisit who often wear yellow to show their affection for the country's monarchy – have also dealt calmly with their election loss, in large part because Ms. Yingluck has moved cautiously during her first nine months in office.
But pick up a newspaper here and you're quickly reminded that the deep social divisions haven't gone away. "The next political storm is only just heating up," read a recent editorial in The Nation, a newspaper that generally supports Mr. Abhisit's Democrat Party. The paper opined that "a new round of violence" was possible later this year or early next.
The trigger for this return to gloom-and-doom? A government-led reconciliation effort that has produced anything but reconciliation.
The independent King Prajadhipok's Institute, a government think-tank named after the only Thai king to willingly abdicate, was tasked with coming up with a national reconciliation program that could heal the divide between Red and Yellow. The main solution the institute came up with – amnesty for all sides – was hardly surprising, but it pleased few.
Ms. Yingluck's government has hinted it wants to adopt the report's recommendations, but many of her hard-core Red Shirt backers may desert her once they realize Mr. Abhisit and the military commanders who ordered the 2010 crackdown will never face charges. (It's a position shared, to a certain extent, by Human Rights Watch, which warned that the reconciliation proposals would "undermine justice by giving immunity to those responsible for human rights abuses").
Meanwhile the Yellow Shirts, as well as large swathes of the Thai establishment, have made it clear they will never accept any arrangement that allows Mr. Thaksin to come home without serving the two-year sentence he received after being convicted in absentia of corruption. They hold Mr. Thaksin – who became the first Thai leader to win back-to-back elections before he was ousted by the army – as personally responsible for Thailand's recent years of turmoil.
But this isn't just an argument about whose crimes are greater and who should or shouldn't receive amnesty. In a less-noticed section of its report, King Prajadhipok's Institute suggested "conflicting views on democracy" were the root cause of Thailand's lingering divide.
King Prajadhipok's Institute found that one side (the Red Shirts) believes democracy simply means majority rule. Mr. Thaksin and his allies have now won the last four elections in convincing fashion. The Red Shirts – the bulk of whom hail from the poor north of Thailand – want to see Mr. Thaksin back in the prime minister's office, and more importantly they want the old guard to stand aside and give up the levers of political and economic power.
The other side, according to King Prajadhipok's Institute, believes "morality and ethical behaviour" trump a simple majority. Some people (specifically Mr. Thaksin and his allies) aren't fit to govern, and it's the role of Thailand's ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the coup-prone military to intervene and keep the country on course when democracy fails it.
Hidden in those words is the real debate: whether Thailand's king should continue to have an active role in politics. Many Red Shirts see the monarchy as a political tool used to keep power in the hands of the old guard, while the Yellows – who include the media, business and bureaucratic elite in their ranks – see the 84-year-old king as a guarantor against the rise of a popular despot.
(One of the most charges frequently levelled against Mr. Thaksin – which he heatedly denies – is that he wants to change Thailand from a constitutional monarchy into a republic, with himself as president. The next showdown in Thailand will be over Ms. Yingluck's desire to change a 2007 constitution that was drafted after her brother's ouster and while the country was under military rule. The 2007 constitution created a Senate that was partially appointed, giving the establishment another check on a democratically elected government.)
Because of the country's draconian lèse majesté laws, which forbid any criticism of the king or the monarchy, even a government-appointed panel can't debate or suggest debating the role of what Thais obliquely refer to as the "higher institution." So the argument over amnesties happens in a vacuum and the real issues go undiscussed.
"Let's face it, reconciliation isn't working," read a headline in the Bangkok Post last week. And it won't work, so long as Thais can't talk about what it is they need to reconcile over.
Meanwhile, rumours persist that the army, which has attempted 18 coups since 1932, is planning to again seize power.
But Thais are used to such rumours, and the talk of turmoil ahead. So it's smiles and water guns on the streets of Bangkok.