Thai airport occupation is part of a wider struggle

Dec 5, 2008
Edward Loxton

The protests reflect a growing national unease at the direction that the government of Prime Minister Somchaiu is taking the country

A bewildered British traveller summed up the complete chaos that has taken over Bangkok and brought Thailand to the brink of countrywide conflict. "I don't understand what it's all about," he said, as his wife comforted their two children, tired out after a 12-hour flight from London.

They sat dejectedly among their luggage at the Thai capital’s gleaming new Suvarnabhumi Airport as hundreds of yellow-shirted anti-government protesters milled around - many of them also uncertain about what was now ahead of them.

A parade of political commentators, academics and journalists appeared on Thai TV throughout the day trying to make sense of a situation that threatens to spin dangerously out of control.

With responsible members of government nowhere to be seen and Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat said to be somewhere in mid-air on his way back from a Pacific Rim summit in Peru, it was left to the leader of the Thai Army, General Anupong Paojinda, to look for a way out.

It is felt Thailand’s ruling party provoked the crisis by appointing Somchai PM

His proposed solution, dissolution of parliament and new elections, has been tried before, however, when the military took power in a bloodless coup in September 2006. And it didn't work then either, leading only to the present confrontation after a no-change election last year which only succeeded in prolonging the crisis.

Leaders of the anti-government extra-parliamentary movement, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), tossed today's compromise proposal back at the general, vowing to occupy the airport and other key positions around Bangkok until Somchai resigns.

PAD demonstrators have been occupying the government compound in central Bangkok for two months, forcing the administration to move its offices to Bangkok's old airport, Don Muang.

But Don Muang is also now under siege and today government ministers were meeting at a secret location to avoid the attention of an increasingly violent PAD mob.

Some flights were successfully diverted to Don Muang and passengers slipped through the PAD cordons. But hundreds of flights were cancelled at Suvarnabhumi, a major southeast Asian hub, creating huge disruption, threatening to bring tourism to a virtual halt and alienating the regional business community.

So where do Thai politics go from here? While the general public in Thailand are frustrated with the PAD methods, there is still strong support for the movement's basic demand - the resignation of Somchai.

General Anupong's conciliatory role in the conflict indicates that the army is sympathetic to the PAD, and there are whisperings that support for the PAD cause can even be found behind the high white walls of the royal palace.

When a young woman PAD activist was killed in a clash with police last month, the King of Thailand contributed towards a fund for her and other victims of the violence. His wife, Queen Sirikit, and their daughter, Princess Chulabhorn, attended the dead woman's funeral - and the gesture did not go unnoticed in Thailand's corridors of power.

There are fears that Thaksin seeks to rebuild the fortunes of the family dynasty

It is widely felt - not only by PAD protesters but by increasing numbers of influential, conservative and royalist Thais who keep a low profile - that Thailand's ruling political party, the People Power Party, provoked the crisis by appointing Somchai prime minister.

Somchai is the brother-in-law of disgraced former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, a fugitive from Thai justice who is seeking a new home after Britain declared him persona non grata.

Somchai's government offered further provocation by announcing plans to amend the constitution and provide a route for Thaksin to return from exile and resume his interrupted political career. PAD and its silent supporters among Bangkok's elite view that possibility with horror.

They are full of praise for Britain's rejection of Thaksin's evident plan to create a political base in London. Thaksin has made it clear that he will take revenge on his enemies if he ever returns to Thailand.

There are also well-founded fears that Thaksin seeks to rebuild the fortunes of the family dynasty he had created before his downfall - an ambition that shakes the very foundations of Thailand's rigidly monarchist structure.

"For all his talk about respecting democratic rule, Thaksin is the greatest threat to Thailand's stability," said one Thai newspaper columnist. "He's a wounded tiger - and no jungle animal is more dangerous."

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