Airport clash grounds Thailand
The tug of war is stranding tourists and raising fears of escalating violence. The military denies rumors of an imminent coup, while the king remains silent.
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"As this festers day by day the situation gets more out of control. I don't know if the military or police could separate these groups if they go at it hammer and tongs," says Paul Quaglia, director of PSA Asia Pacific, a security consultancy in Bangkok.Skip to next paragraph
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In recent weeks, unknown assailants have fired grenades into the thinning crowds camped inside the government compound, including an attack early Sunday that injured more than 50 people. Gunmen also attacked a pro-PAD television station.
Such lawlessness is at odds with the festive weekend scene at Suvarnabhumi (Golden Land) International Airport, the steel-and-glass gateway to Thailand that opened in 2006. Rows of cars wait two deep on the entrance ramp to the passenger terminal, where a mobile PAD stage blasts around-the-clock speeches and songs. Children hold the hands of parents milling around the cavernous terminal, stopping for free snacks, medical aid, and haircuts.
Next to a truck passing out free blankets, two lines of yellow-clad supporters wait for buses to shuttle them back to the government compound, the group's de facto headquarters. As she waits, Ticktok Pratibha cheerfully explains how she had quit her job as a teacher in May to be a full-time PAD activist. "Politics have to be changed. A new kind of government must be established," she says.
Many protesters brim with confidence that the government will fall. Few show much fear over the possibility of a violent end to their occupation. Their nonchalance is partly explained by the clumsy tactics of the police during past confrontations, including a lethal clash during a parliament blockade in October and the belief that the Thai security forces will publicly take the blame for any casualties.
"The police aren't going to do (an airport raid) because they've learned their lessons. They always become the bad guys," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
Another reason for the PAD's air of impunity is their royal imprimatur in a nation steeped in reverence for King Bhumibol, a constitutional monarch. PAD leaders cast their battle as a fight for the integrity of the crown against disloyal politicians, including former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who fled into exile in August before being convicted in absentia of abusing his powers. Somchai is his brother-in-law. The cabinet is stacked with his loyalists.
"Thaksin wants to be the president in future. We want a good government under the king," says Theerasak Bussarakamsakul, a cabinetmaker who joined the weekend airport rally.
King Bhumibol, the world's longest reigning monarch, has intervened in past crises to steer Thailand out of political deadlock, most recently in 1992. But the elderly and ailing monarch has so far remained silent.