Thursday, November 27, 2008

No-Fly Zone in Thailand

Hundreds of American tourists who have been vacationing in Thailand will be late for Thanksgiving dinner today. They're stuck in Bangkok after a large mob of yellow-clad anti-government protesters, some masked and armed with metal rods, invaded Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok Tuesday night and shut it down. Tourism is crucial to Thailand's economty and the busiest season begins next week. Although Suvarnabhumi (pronounced su-va'-na-pum') is the world's 18th largest airport and a major hub for Asian flights, police guarding the facility were ineffective and help from the powerful Thai military was absent. Why?

The protest, which began six months ago, was organized by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) with the aim of toppling any elected government it sees as allied to the hated former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, now in exile and on the run. It doesn't help that the current prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, is married to Thaksin's sister. The People's Power Party, a stand-in for Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party which was banned after a military coup unseated him in 2006, won a majority of votes in an election nearly a year ago, with support primarily from the rural north and northeast. Conservative factions in Bangkok and the south were unhappy with the outcome and took to the streets earlier this year. Their stated goal is to annul the power of the poor (deemed ignorant and corruptable) in Thailand and install a minority government managed for the interests of elites. "We sympathise with the passengers, but this is a necessary move to save the nation," PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul told supporters at the airport. "If he [Somchai] doesn't resign, I will not leave." "Democracy," ha!

As I blogged on Tuesday, the PAD was losing steam and desperate. They had taken over government offices three months ago and the politicians and bureaucrats moved to temporary quarters at the older Don Muang Airport. They have twice blockaded Parliament to prevent debate on constitutional issues they fear will bring back Thaksin. Declaring a "final showdown" this week (the second so far), they forced Parliament again to postpone its session and surrounded the Don Muang offices with thousands of mostly middle-class supporters who seem to have found a new social life in the festive traveling demonstration, waving ridiculous hand-clappers and singing patriotic songs. But the government's passive approach to the protest, allowing the mob to wander where it wanted, backfired when PAD leaders sent thousands of cars and trucks with supporters to Suvarnabhumi where Prime Minister Somchai was due to return from a meeting in Peru.

Violence is now rearing its ugly head (contrary to my headline here on Tuesday). A pro-government mob in Chiang Mai dragged a PAD activist from his car before shooting and killing him yesterday. Four bombs were exploded at the airport. In Bangkok there was television footage of a PAD guard firing on pro-government demonstrators while next to him someone held up a large photograph of the King. Both sides of the now large divide claim allegiance to the monarch, whom Thais revere as almost divine, and look to him for guidance. But the 80-year-old ruler, who has intervened successfully in past political disputes, remains silent. Somchai supposedly had an audience with him yesterday but nothing has been reported.

Yesterday Gen. Anupong Paochinda, the commander of the Army whom Somchai had put in charge of security during his absence, bluntly advised the prime minister to dissolve his government and pave the way for new elections. “The government should return the power to people,” he told reporters. The prime minister refused. “This government was elected by the people under the king,” Somchai said on his return, his plane landing at Chiang Mai to avoid protestors. “The government will carry out its duty to the fullest for the benefit of the country and the benefit of the people.” Speaking on Thai TV last night, he condemned the seizure of the airport as illegal, undemocratic and a threat to democracy and the well-being of the country. The stand-off continues.

"The incident has damaged Thailand's reputation and its economy beyond repair," airport director Serirat Prasutanont said. The takeover by the PAD mob is one more strike against Thailand's $16 billion a year tourism industry, already damanged by months of political unrest and the global financial crisis. Over 40 million passengers passed through the glittering new Suvarnabhumi in 2007. Besides angry tourists who will probably never return, the closure hurts thousands of workers dependent on the airport, from taxi drivers to airline workers and sales clerks in store shops. A friend who does massage on Koh Lanta has seen few customers so far this year and is suffering from the lack of income. Most countries have issued travel advisories for Thailand, telling their citizens to stay away.

Gen. Anupong's refusal to prevent the airport takeover or restore order after it was accomplished is very difficult for me to understand. I can think of no other country that would allow protesters to occupy its government offices for months or close an international airport. Some have called Anupong's inaction and his call to dissolve the government a "passive coup." "There's no doubt this suggestion was not a very veiled threat by the army," said Chris Baker, a historian and political analyst. "They're saying to the prime minister, if you don't go, there's the threat of a coup. I think it might happen." The PAD is very well supported. They feed their troops, entertain them, and provide portable bathrooms. This takes money from somewhere. Who is paying them?

When I talk to Thais about this crisis which has brought their country to the verge of anarchy and chaos, they hint at mysterious forces behind the scenes who support the PAD and are intent on controling the government and the electorate to serve their ends. No names are mentioned. To speak ill of the powers that be here is a punishable offense, as a poor Australian, who self-published a novel insufficiently respectful, discovered when he was thrown into jail four months ago.

Ian Williams, discussing "Thailand's Political Maze" on the MSNBC web site, says that none of this "is openly discussed by the Thai media, which is shackled by strict lèse-majesté laws which make it a crime to offend the monarchy, but the future of the Chakri Dynasty goes to the heart of the current power struggle. One seasoned journalist summed it up nicely: 'Covering this crisis is like trying to explain the unexplainable, without mentioning the unmentionable.' Writing in the Bangkok Post today, Thitinan Pongsudhirak believes that "the PAD has come this far in its thuggish ways is attributable to its powerful backing, without which its relative impunity in the face of flagrant violations of the law can hardly be explained." The longer the crisis continues, he sais, "the longer and more exposed and compromised the PAD's backers have become." They are continually "dragging them down to the cut-and-thrust of Thai Politics to their own detriment." Who the backers are is not spelled out, but local political observers have learned how to read between the lines. Thitinan thinks a dissolution of the government, buying time "for the various protagonists to come to their senses and for Thai voters to have a say after a year of turmoil and volatility," is the only solution now.

In the meantime, life goes on. I cannot emphasize enough that I see no evidence on the streets of the trouble not all that far away. The traffic is still bad, the air quality could be improved, and beggars block the sidewalks. I feel perfectly safe and believe that any violence will be directed against specific targets, not me. But Thais seem to be able to smile their way through difficulties that would daunt a westerner used to a generally-accepted rule of law and democratic ideals (however hypocritically voiced).

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