Thai Protesters Seize Part of Airport; Activists in Bangkok Hope to Show World That ‘Killer Government' Is Not in Control

Constitutional Court bans Somchai from office, thrilling anti-government protesters who shut down airports in recent days, charging that the ruling coalition was corrupt.
By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 26, 2008

BANGKOK, Nov. 25 -- Activists trying to bring down Thailand's government seized key parts of the capital's main airport Tuesday, forcing authorities to cancel all departing flights and dealing a further blow to the country's reeling tourism industry.

"We want to seize the airport to show the media that the prime minister cannot control anything in Thailand," Suwan Kansanoh, a retired government official who was among the protesters, told journalists by phone.

The airport raid was the culmination of two days of demonstrations billed by the anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) as the "final mass rally" to oust the "killer government."

The government, led by Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, has refused to resign, insisting that the overwhelming mandate it won in elections held at the end of last year still stands.

[The airport was shut down Wednesday, the Associated Press reported. Earlier in the day, it reported, assailants threw four explosives at anti-government demonstrators across the city.]

At the core of the dispute lies the legacy of Thaksin Shinawatra, the controversial telecommunications billionaire and former prime minister who was removed from office in a military coup in 2006 amid allegations of corruption and cronyism.

Thaksin inspires visceral hatred among PAD supporters, who believe that the current government is his proxy. Somchai is the former prime minister's brother-in-law.

But as last year's elections demonstrated, Thaksin and his allies still have the support of Thailand's rural poor -- a constituency he and his successors have courted with low-cost health care and subsidized loans.

Although PAD leaders had made bold predictions about this week's demonstrations, the turnout, about 20,000 people, has been smaller than expected, and a threatened strike by state enterprise workers caused little disruption. Political analysts say that despite the protesters' success in disrupting operations at the airport, the movement is struggling to maintain momentum.

"The reality is that they can't raise the numbers on the streets to force anybody to do anything," said Chris Baker, a Bangkok-based political scientist who has written a number of books on Thailand's troubles.

The last two days had been mostly peaceful. But there was an outbreak of violence Tuesday night when PAD guards fired on opponents. The shooters were apparently responding to pro-government demonstrators who allegedly threw stones at a car carrying PAD members returning from another rally. Local media reported that 11 people were injured.

Although it has managed to paralyze the political process for the last six months, the PAD has had little success in articulating an alternative vision to end Thailand's political stalemate.

Its platform of "new politics" -- including a suggestion of rolling back democratic representation to make 70 percent of parliament appointed rather than elected -- has found little traction in the wider population.

Baker said the group, which has a largely middle-class, urban base, has started to fall victim to internal contradictions. Unable to win at the ballot box, or to frighten the government into resigning, Baker said, the group has been reduced to trying to provoke the sort of violence that would force the army to stage a coup. But that is alienating its supporters.

Gen. Anupong Paojinda, the army chief, said there would be no coup, even if violence broke out.

"The armed forces have agreed that a coup cannot solve our country's problems, and we will try to weather the current situation and pass this critical time," Anupong told reporters in Bangkok.

Over the past two days, police have taken a deliberately nonconfrontational line, falling back as the PAD protesters, many armed with iron bars, wooden clubs or slingshots, advanced. The police tactics not only minimized the possibility of clashes but also allowed the protesters to spread so widely that the demonstration became diffuse and directionless.

There are also economic pressures. Thailand is starting to feel the pain of the global slowdown, and many here worry that political paralysis is doing lasting damage to the country's ability to counter the mounting economic threat. The closure of Bangkok's new Suvarnabhumi Airport will be another blow to a tourism industry badly damaged by previous clashes between protesters and police.

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