Few gains in Thai protesters' 'final war'

The antigovernment group swarmed the airport where the prime minister was supposed to arrive Wednesday.

Kerek Wongsa/Reuters
Standoff: Antigovernment protesters blocked the main road at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi international airport Tuesday.

Despite the increasingly violent "final showdowns" that Thailand's antigovernment protesters have carried out this week, the months-old movement appears to be losing steam.

On Tuesday, members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) clashed with government supporters and continued besieging Don Muang airport, where government officials had set up a temporary office. They also swarmed Thailand's main international airport and blocked the road to it in anticipation of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat's return Wednesday, forcing all departing flights to be suspended.

But the PAD's self-declared "last war" – which follows months of disruptive protests – failed to achieve its goals of compelling the government to step down or of triggering a military coup. Meanwhile, the PAD's ranks are thinning as followers weary of the prolonged turmoil.

"They've run a little dry and have become more desperate," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst with Thailand's Chulalongkorn University. "The longer it goes on, the more of a drain it becomes. They've been trying to close this game."

Tired protesters snoozed on tile floors at Don Muang airport Monday night. More slept on a traffic ramp outside despite blaring music.

"This has to come to a pinnacle at some point," said Soontorn Rakong, a PAD coordinator, surrounded by dozing protesters. "Win or lose? I can't say."

For much of this year, the alliance has rallied hard to topple the elected People Power Party, which they accuse of buying votes to win elections late last year. The party has close ties to exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. To many Thais, he is a hero, but the PAD casts him as archvillain, insisting that he still holds sway over Thailand's political leadership – especially Prime Minister Somchai, his brother-in-law.

In August, roughly 10,000 protesters stormed the prime minister's compound with pipes and clubs, transforming its grounds into a 24-hour tent city and alliance headquarters. Government workers fled, eventually setting up offices in the now-seized Don Muang airport VIP lounge. Alliance leader Sondhi Limthongkul, owner of a TV and newspaper enterprise, set up live satellite feeds to bring more disaffected Thais to his cause.

Mr. Thitinan and other analysts say the alliance's "final war" is meant to provoke a military coup and force the current government out. The country has a history of coups – 18 since World War II, the latest being Thaksin's ouster in 2006.

Though coup rumors have electrified Bangkok in recent months, prospects of another one appear dim. The Royal Thai Armed Forces leadership has taken a hands-off approach during the protests. Thailand's Army chief, Gen. Anupong Paochinda, has stated that his soldiers cannot heal Thailand's political wounds. The coup route, he said, is "a closed door."

Many analysts believe that only out-and-out anarchy would convince the military to intervene. But if the alliance hoped for a fight this week – it barricaded streets, mocked riot cops, and disrupted parliament – police and soldiers disappointed them by keeping their distance.

Meanwhile, the PAD's supporters appears more ragged and spare. Only about 2,000 people occupy the prime minister's compounds on weekdays – a mix of paid guards, vendors hawking T-shirts, and retirement-age Thais.

Bleaker still is the financial picture of its propaganda network, Manager Media Group. After ducking a civil court hearing with creditors this month, its assets may be eligible for seizure.

The firm has more than $133 million in debt – a fortune in Thai business terms. Its "news" channel, which runs nonstop footage of protests, posts frequent banner ads requesting donations.

The PAD has protesters to feed, satellite trucks to maintain, technicians, bodyguards, and others to pay. According to Sondhi, occupying the compound costs roughly 1 million Thai baht ($28,400) a day. Adding Don Muang's occupation to its balance sheet will further sap its resources.

The thought of another coup is not particularly welcome to the PAD's rank and file. "It's a hard question. I don't really want a coup," said Rattana Somleak late Monday night. The dessert salesman, prepared for a long occupation at Don Muang, had just finished brushing his teeth over an airport railing.

"The government has all the power and, yes, they got it from elections. That's the correct way. But they also got power from buying votes, buying the media." Could he stomach another coup? Mr. Somleak's brow tightens. "Maybe. I just don't know."

Away from the megaphone, Soontorn, the PAD coordinator, acknowledges that the violent protests must end soon. We can't keep going on with these little wins and little losses, back and forth, between us and the government."

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