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Thailand's long zig-zag struggle for democracy is threatening to become a farce with dire implications for all Southeast Asia.

As the only Southeast Asian country never colonized by a Western power, Thailand is proud of its independence before and since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. But Thais never learned from farangs (foreigners) how to make democracy work. Instead they have endured a long series of military coups, corrupt politicians and, at especially critical times, pro-democracy intervention by the revered constitutional monarch Bhumiphol Adulyadej.

The latest spectacle pits two groups of Thais – each claiming to be for democracy – against each other.

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One group, led by wealthy exiled Sino-Thai profiteer Thaksin Shinawatra, whose younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra is Prime Minister in his absence, thrives politically as well as economically on corruption – routinely paying poor rice-growing farmers for their votes.

The other group, growing out of the middle-class Prachatipat or Democrat Party founded in 1946, has in effect thrown away this vital credential by opposing and even planning to disrupt a Feb. 2 parliamentary election called by Yingluck, who has rejected a postponement proposed by Thailand's Election Commission.

Led by Oxford-educated Abbisit Vejjajiva, the Democrats have turned their back on democracy by following dissident Suthep Thaugsuban, who favors a non-elected national council.

The underlying assumption among Thais is that Yingluck and her ironically named Clean Thai Party will win another election. If she does, and brings back Thaksin under an amnesty – the first reason for anti-Thaksin street demonstrations – the so far laid-back army is likely to take matters into its own hands, reviving the tradition of military coups by again deposing the Shinawatra family. The army commander has neither accepted nor rejected the possibility of another coup.

If Prachatipat does not return to its senses and its roots, and does not win the early February election, Thailand's democracy landscape will be all but barren. This will have an adverse impact on other Southeast Asian nations aspiring to genuine democracy, especially Indonesia with its army in waiting, and the Philippines with its gap between rich and poor much greater than Thailand's.

Moreover, setbacks for democracy in Southeast Asia and elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific will provide grist for the mill of China's expansionism, with Southeast Asia its first regional target for anti-democracy statist regimes. Thailand's Thaksin, for example, has strong ties to Beijing.

Thaksin, the root of Thailand's troubles, also claims he owes allegience to King Bhumiphol. Many Thais do not believe him, and they may also be swayed by the sharp drop in Thailand's economy, particularly the decline in exports of rice.

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Presumably, the king does not believe Thaksin either. He has publicly excoriated Thaksin for corruption. That was before he was compelled for health reasons to suspend the role he had created of mediator of last resort in Thai politics. But after four years in hospital, and while anti-Thaksin demonstrations were going on, King Bhumiphol, looking healthy on his 86th birthday, drove with Queen Sirikit to his palace on the ocean near Bangkok.

The king's appearance during the latest Thai crisis clearly sent a signal. It was not clear immediately what the signal is. But many Thais who have yearned for democracy for decades strongly hope that Bhumiphol is reasserting his role when he banished autocratic governments in 1973 and 1992, and thereby saved the nation.

David Van Praagh, a former Globe and Mail correspondent in South and Southeast Asia, is the author of Thailand's Struggle for Democracy: The Life and Times of M. R. Seni Pramoj. He is a retired professor of journalism at Carleton University.

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