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.

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor
Rest for the restless: A protester slept at the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok on Saturday, four days after the facility was taken over. The airport remains closed as protesters continue their demands for the prime minister to step down.

A week of escalating resistance by anti-government protesters has put the Thai capital in a stranglehold that its flailing civilian government seems unable to break. The stalemate has raised fears of widespread unrest in a war of attrition between a populist ruling party and a royalist protest movement in Bangkok that is determined to rewrite the political playbook.

Over the weekend, protesters equipped with iron bars, shields, and slingshots rebuffed tentative efforts by riot police to cordon off the international airport seized last Wednesday. Impassioned leaders have urged their followers to be prepared to resist an armed assault. A domestic airport is also being held by the People's Alliance for Democracy, which wants Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat and his cabinet to resign over allegations of corruption and treason.

The five-day closure of the two airports has stranded tens of thousands of foreign tourists and paralyzed trade, with losses estimated at billions of dollars. Some tourists are being evacuated from a military airbase outside the capital. Thai tourism officials predict a huge short-term slump in foreign visitors that would trigger massive job losses in an already weakened economy.

On Thursday, Mr. Somchai declared a state of emergency at the two airports and authorized Thai security forces to remove the protesters. A new police chief was installed Friday. But the powerful military, which seized power two years ago during a similar crisis, has refused to take part. Army chief General Anuphong Paochinda has called on Somchai to dissolve parliament and hold elections, while denying rumors of an imminent coup.

"The government is a lame duck in a no-win situation at the moment," says James Klein, country director for the Asia Foundation.

Barring a bloody confrontation that forces the military's hand, an alternative scenario is what government supporters call a "silent coup." A constitutional court could rule as early as Tuesday on a campaign fraud case against the ruling People's Power Party and two of its partners. All face potential dissolution – the fate meted out last year to a forerunner of PPP.

A court-ordered breakup would trigger a constitutional tussle over the shape of a caretaker government ahead of new elections. PAD activists want a period of rule by their allies in military and royal circles so that a semidemocratic constitution can be imposed over the wishes of elected politicians.

In response, pro-government leaders held a mass gathering Sunday in central Bangkok to denounce military intervention and rail against the PAD, which is also occupying the prime minister's compound. In recent days, these leaders have threatened to send their supporters – known as 'red shirts' in contrast to the PAD 'yellow shirts' – to take back the airports if the police are unwilling to do the job. This raises the specter of a full-scale battle between rival camps after months of provocations and isolated clashes.

"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.

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.

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