Thailand’s political turmoil took an appalling turn over the weekend with four people killed — three of them children.
Gunmen jumped from two pickup trucks and opened fire on antigovernment demonstrations in eastern Thailand’s Trat province on Saturday, claiming the life of a 5-year-old girl who was apparently waiting by her father’s noodle stand.
The next day, a grenade attack near Bangkok’s Central World shopping mall — typically swarming with families, strollers and tourists — killed a mother, her 4-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. The family was not part of the protest but merely shopping nearby, says the distraught father. Another 21 people were injured by the explosion.
Embattled Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra denounced the bloodshed on Sunday. “The violent incidents are terrorist acts for political gain without any regard for human lives,” she told reporters. “The government will not tolerate terrorism and has ordered a full investigation by authorities.”
In turn, protest leaders were quick to blame the government for the carnage. “These brutal attacks were the work of the servants of the Thaksin [Shinawatra] regime,” Satit Wongnongtoey, a leading figure in the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, the main protest group, said in a statement Sunday.
After three months, antigovernment protests — aimed at unseating Yingluck and purging Thailand of the influence of her divisive brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin — have become increasingly characterized by indiscriminate street violence.
Last Tuesday, five people were killed and more than 600 injured in pitched battles as police tried to clear protest sites. At least 18 people have died and many hundreds hurt since the outset of unrest.
“The situation has become much more volatile, and both sides are much more desperate,” says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
A court decision last week effectively blocked security forces from dealing forcefully with protesters and may have been “the last straw” for many government supporters, says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
Despite the presence of masked figures with barely concealed weapons sharing the same stage as protest leaders, and grenades hurled at police lines causing horrific injuries, judges ruled that the protesters were acting “peacefully without weapons,” and so were “protected according to the constitution.”
According to legal analysts, the nine-point court decision is a clear infringement on the executive and legislative areas of government.
“This is the latest in a series of highly politicized court decisions that have been trying to disadvantage the Thaksin forces back to 2006,” says Andrew Walker, Southeast Asia expert at Australian National University. “For the first time I’m genuinely fearful about this erupting into widespread conflict.”
Yingluck remains popular in the north and northeastern provinces, which have benefited from populist policies initiated by her brother. However, the Shinawatra clan is anathema to royalists and to the middle-class voters of Bangkok and southern provinces. Snap elections called on Feb. 2 were boycotted by the opposition Democrat Party — mindful that Thaksin-backed parties have won every election since 2001 — and voting could not be held at around 10% of polling stations because of protests.
“Once you start boycotting elections, rejecting the outcome, vilifying voters, you mobilize and empower extremists on all sides,” says Walker.
Thida Thavornseth, chairwoman of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, the principal Red Shirt organization of Thaksin supporters, warns of “civil war” if the election result is not honored soon.
“We have tried to control Red Shirts to fight according to the law and constitution, but they are very angry,” she tells TIME.
If Yingluck is forced from office, then there is little doubt that the Red Shirts would march on Bangkok, just like they did in 2010. That demonstration, prompted by the ousting of a pro-Thaksin government by judicial intervention, ended with 90 people killed and more than 2,000 injured in a bloody crackdown.
“The opposition movement is extraordinarily naive if they think that the progovernment forces are going to accept the pushing aside of yet another elected government,” says Walker.
According to Walker, “an endgame” is approaching because Yingluck is running out of legal options to tackle the unrest. Thailand’s first female Prime Minister has to appear in court on Feb. 27 to answer charges of abuse of power and maleficence over a botched rice scheme that has cost around $18 billion. Several similar cases are also pending.
“Both sides are laying the groundwork for a pretty serious confrontation,” says Walker.
Thitinan agrees: “The growing likelihood of longer-term civil conflict is real indeed.”