Sunday, November 30, 2008

On the Brink in Bangkok

The bloody terrorist siege in Mumbai may have ended, but not the one in Bangkok. Three bombs ovenight wounded more than 45 at three different locations.

For an estimated 100,000 visitors stranded in Thailand, it has been a nightmare since several thousand members of a motley mob of anti-government protesters stormed into Souvarnabhumi International Airport last Tuesday and shut it down. A day later another wing of the group closed the domestic airport at Don Muang, effectively grounding all flights from the Thai capital. The affluent, like Denmark's Prince Frederik and his wife, Princess Mary who left Friday, can get out via chartered jets from U-tapao military base 12o miles southeast of the city, but this airport facility, now stretched to the limit, can handle only limited commercial flights. Thousands are now packed into its small terminal waiting to be airlifted out. The government has promised tourists in temporary housing compensation of 2000 baht a day, enough for a roach-infested room and several drinks at a strip club, according to one wag. The adventurous have taken buses or trains hundreds of miles to airports on the southern island of Phuket or in the northern city of Chiang Mai or have traveled overland all the way to neighboring Laos, Cambodia or Malaysia. But many are stuck in "The Land of Smiles" until the standoff at the airports is resolved.

And that might not be any time soon, although the airport authority anounced optimistically that Souvarnabhumi is closed "until Monday." Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat remains in Chiang Mai along with his now dysfunctional government, possibly fearing a much rumored military coup. The general in charge of security in the country refuses to act, and Somchai fired the national police chief when he likewise did nothing. The new chief has stationed several thousand police around the airports, but yesterday protesters attacked a police checkpoint outside Suvarnabhumi Airport, disabling 10 police vehicles and forcing security forces to retreat. A similar confrontation occurred again in the evening. Despite this police presence, demonstrators continued to stream into the airport to join the well-organized sit-in which is amply provisioned with water, food, medical supplies and blankets. Rumors hint at wealthy backers who support their goal of toppling the Somchai government

“We are ready to talk,” Lt. Gen. Chalong Somjai of the Thai police said in a news conference at a police station near Suvarnabhumi. “We are trying to bring this to a peaceful conclusion.” And that precisely is the problem. A small group of anti-government fanatics, the ill-named Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD), is holding the country hostage, demanding that a democratically-elected government fall because of its alleged ties to the hated exiled PM, Thaksin Shinawatra. The shutdown of the airports is a disaster for Thailand. It will probably take years for the tourist industry to recover, along with the hundreds of thousands of jobs it provides for a country where poverty is still widespread. Beside this, the inconvenience of the tourists and businessmen is small potatoes. How could this happen?

There is a complicated back story to the crisis which I do not fully comprehend, and probably could not report because of stict laws that prohibit mention of the royal family. Politics is a large part of it. Next week the courts are expected to force the administration's People's Power Party to disband because of vote-buying (a common practice) in the last election. But PPP members will shift over to another party quickly. The timing is important because some may not be eligible to run in the next election. PAD apparently will push for a select group of elites to head a temporary council which could force regulations limiting the ability of its opponents to regain control of the government. A fair election would undoubtedly elect politicians sympathetic to Thaksin's agenda (he remains influential in exile) because of electoral majorities in the north and northeast. PAD's anti-demoncratic policies would disenfranchise them. Added to these considerations is the birthday of the King next Friday. Since all sides profess allegiance to the monarchy, any conflict or violence on his birthday would be anathema.

Given all this, I am not a pacifist. The PAD leaders and their well-armed guards are fascist thugs and should be removed immediately. Their ideology has attracted a wide variety of mostly middle-class citizens (primarily female) with enough time on their hands to spend at the non-stop rallies. They besieged the government offices for three months before closing down the airports and damaging the future of the country they profess to love. An ill-managed attempt to evict them from Government House a month ago resulted in one death and many injuries because police used exploding tear gas cannisters from China. Past demonstrations that were surpressed by authorities in 1976 and 1992 left scores of protesters dead and wounded, so the government is understandably careful. But the PAD cross the line months ago. Its assemblies have not been peaceful. No government can allow its functioning to be so compromised by a small group of people. So the authorities now must clear out the sit-in and reopen the airports, and soon.

Sometimes I think the world is going insane, despite Obama's victory. I read of a Wal-Mart employee trampled to death in Nassau County, New York, on Black Friday after Thanksgiving, the day that consumers flock to worship in stores across America. And across the country in Palm Desert, where my brother practices law, two men shot each other to death in the aisles of a Toys R Us store, presumably because their wives were fighting over some desired toy for their kids.

There will no doubt be casualties in the battle to retake Souvarnabhumi and Don Muang. PAD members have vowed to fight to the death. The crowd is filled with old women and children who will be helpless to escape. What is missing at the moment is resolve on the part of Somchai and his ministers and will on the part of the security forces who must carry out the necessary dirty work. The red-shirted supporters of Somchai and his government have been relatively restrained, except for the overnight bombings. Today a large demonstration has been called for Sanam Luang. I was planning to go there to visit the crematorium built for the funeral of the Princess. But I will wear neither red nor yellow, the color for PAD members. Until the crisis is resolved, I find myself holding my breath.

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