Striding into the hastily abandoned headquarters of Thailand's Red Shirt movement in central Bangkok, Colonel Apirat Kongsompong glanced at the detritus of demonstration: stacks of Styrofoam cups, half-empty bottles of fish sauce and whisky, remote controls for televisions once tuned to news channels documenting the street battles between antigovernment forces and the army. On Tuesday, Red Shirt leaders ended the protesters' three-week occupation of central Bangkok, which left at least two dead and more than 100 injured. On a mission to secure the area less than an hour after the Red Shirts had decamped, the commander of the élite 11th Infantry Regiment of the Royal Guards walked over to a pile of picture frames cast aside in a corner of the makeshift room. Picking up one photograph, he gazed at the image of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, dapper in a pink blazer and pink shirt.
The rest of the discarded pictures were also of the world's longest-serving monarch, some capturing him in ceremonial regalia, one showing him playing a jazz saxophone. Apirat shook his head as water dripped on the images, which were left behind when the Red Shirts abandoned their post and started the trip back to their homes across the nation. An unspoken question hovered in the air: What were pictures of Thailand's King, beloved by millions, doing forsaken in the middle of what hours before had been a potential battle zone? (See pictures of the week's protests.)
For more than six decades, Thailand's Buddhist majority has been remarkably unified under the country's King. Considered above politics, the 81-year-old monarch rarely comments on political matters and instead stands as a suprasymbol of Thai cohesion. His picture graces most every restaurant and business in the land, and a giant billboard of his visage with the words "Long Live the King" greets visitors at Bangkok's airport. For years, millions of Thais wore yellow every Monday in a voluntary show of support for the King, who was born on the first day of the week and is represented by the golden hue. As the country has cycled through a seemingly endless parade of coups and governments, one constant has remained: each new leader has pledged allegiance to the King and, presumably with it, the vast apparatus that supports the royal family.
But in recent months, the Thai political landscape has seemingly shifted. While opposition Red Shirt politicians still publicly pledge loyalty to the monarch, their figurehead, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has openly alleged that one of the King's closest advisers was behind the 2006 army coup that unseated him. That adviser, General Prem Tinsulanonda, has dismissed the charge. Thaksin and his Red Shirt cohorts have been at pains to underline that they don't think the King himself had anything to do with the putsch that overthrew one of Thailand's most popular but also most divisive Prime Ministers. Yet any implication of political maneuvering within the royal circle is incendiary in a nation where many practically deify the throne. One of Thaksin's lieutenants has already been charged with lèse-majesté, punishable in Thailand by up to 15 years in jail. The ruling Democrat Party has vowed to root out antimonarchy material on the Internet and has banned thousands of Web pages deemed offensive to the royal family. (Read a TIME Q&A with Thaksin.)
Notably, when the Red Shirts thronged central Bangkok by the thousands, few held aloft pictures of the Thai monarch. The absence was marked, especially compared with the omnipresent images of the King clutched by Yellow Shirt protesters last year, when they besieged Bangkok's airports for a week in an effort to unseat the government, which was then essentially a Thaksin proxy party. (Late last year, a Thai court dissolved that ruling party. The opposition Democrats led by current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva took over, prompting the Red Shirts to initiate their protest movement.) Indeed, the Yellow Shirts' very choice of sartorial color was a not-so-subtle reminder of their loyalty to the monarch. The King has never publicly weighed in on the Yellow Shirt/Red Shirt divide. Nor has he made any statement in support of the Yellow Shirts. But royal watchers noted that his wife, Queen Sirikit, attended the cremation ceremony of a Yellow Shirt protester who died in political violence last year. (See pictures of last year's protests.)
In some ways, the fact that Abhisit's government and troops were able to disperse the entrenched Red Shirts from central Bangkok on Tuesday without further bloodshed suggests that Thais may finally be moving toward solving their political problems without relying on a royal arbiter. But the Red Shirts have vowed to rekindle their protest movement and the divide that has cleaved the country is so wide that no one seems to have any idea how to bridge it. "I hope from now on we don't have Yellow Shirts, Red Shirts, Blue Shirts, whatever color shirts," said Apirat as he watched flames rise from a public bus torched by the antigovernment protesters. "Why can't we all just live peacefully and wear the same color shirt?"
But Apirat knows that merging political hues and disentangling the complex web of shifting relationships between Thai politicians, military officers and those who serve the King is an all but impossible task. After all, Apirat's own father, General Sunthorn Kongsompong, was a key architect of the 1991 army coup that culminated in a bloody crackdown against demonstrators in May 1992. Thailand's version of Tiananmen ended when the King brought together the country's two main political antagonists, who were pictured on television kneeling in front of the stern-faced monarch. In a surprising move on Monday, a group of Thai senators filed a petition to the King pleading for him to intervene to end the bloody political standoff on Bangkok's streets. Luckily, this clash was resolved. But what happens next time?
With reporting by Robert Horn / Bangkok