By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 12, 2009
PATTAYA, Thailand, April 11 -- Anti-government demonstrators forced the cancellation of a summit of Asian leaders Saturday when they invaded the meeting site in this Thai resort town.
The Thai government used helicopters to evacuate the foreign leaders, who were in a nearby hotel, and declared a state of emergency after hundreds of red-shirted protesters broke through lines of police and military guards and smashed through doors to reach the heart of the conference center.
The summit was supposed to bring together the leaders of the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, known as ASEAN, and Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. The agenda was dominated by the international financial crisis, but leaders had also planned to sign an ASEAN-China agreement on investment, and China, Japan and South Korea were scheduled to discuss North Korea's recent missile test.
The annual meeting is almost the only time that Asian leaders gather without U.S. and European leaders.
The protesters were demanding the resignation of the four-month-old government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Abhisit came to power in a controversial parliamentary vote in December, a route his opponents say bypassed the democratic process. They accuse him of relying on the support of powerful businesses and military leaders.
After a few minutes of chanting slogans, the protesters dispersed when one of their leaders yelled through a police megaphone that Abhisit had left the building.
A government spokesman said officials hoped to hold the summit in two months, but diplomats said they thought that was unlikely.
The meeting had been deferred once, in December, when a different group of demonstrators threatened that gathering.
The protesters seemed to have little trouble pushing through the security cordon Saturday, raising questions about the stability of Abhisit's administration. A cultural prohibition on using state power against street protests runs strongly through Thai politics, but some observers suggested that the military guards did even less than expected to stop the demonstrators.
At the convention site, there was no violence and little animosity between the protesters and the security guards, who wore helmets and riot shields but were unarmed, aside from batons.
"They are just like us; we are friends," Surya Lamthong, a designer who was one of the protesters, said while motioning toward guards resting under nearby trees.
Most of the protesters are supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was removed from power in a military coup in 2006. Thaksin, in exile to avoid a two-year prison sentence for breaking conflict-of-interest laws while in office, has used nightly video links to address rallies in Bangkok, the capital, over the past two weeks.