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"State Of Emergency" At Bangkok's Airports

"State Of Emergency" At Bangkok's Airports


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat clamped a "state of emergency" on Bangkok's two main airports on Thursday, and ordered the navy, air force and police to remove protesters who barricaded thousands of passengers from arriving or departing.

He announced no time-table for clearing the airports, and indicated that security forces would first try to negotiate with them to stop "holding the country hostage, and the public hostage." The state of emergency reportedly outlaws groups of more than five people, and can include a media blackout.

Angry, frightened and weary international and Thai passengers languished in hotels on Thursday, after anti-government protesters seized Suvarnabhumi International Airport on Tuesday.

Wearing royalist yellow shirts, the noisy protestors on Wednesday also took control of Don Muang, Bangkok's smaller, former international airport, which serves some domestic routes.

Unwilling to arrest them, the military and police passively allowed thousands of protesters to swagger into the new, glass- encased, futuristic international airport, brandishing clubs and shouting for Somchai's resignation.

Their crude occupation destroyed this Southeast Asian, Buddhist nation's image as a tourist-friendly holiday paradise, and also prevented businessmen, officials, students, families and others from flying back home abroad, or arriving here.

Several international commercial airplanes remained trapped on the tarmac, unable to depart after thugs with clubs threatened their way into the control tower.

Countless millions of dollars worth of business was lost. The shut down blocked most of Thailand's imports and exports by air, including industrial items, spare parts, medicine, food, agricultural goods, and other perishables.

Apparently unable to depend on the army's support, Somchai said the navy would help police evict hundreds of anti-government protesters from the international airport.

Air force officials would support police to clear Don Muang airport, Somchai said in a nationwide televised speech on Thursday evening.

Medical teams were reportedly rushing to both airports to prepare for a possible confrontation.

The protesters earlier boasted they would not leave the airports until Somchai resigned.

The protesters' action was symbolic of Thailand's bizarre, topsy- turvy, ongoing political and class warfare.

Inside the airports, Bangkok's minority, pampered middle-class and their supporters were protesting against this country's majority rural poor.

If Somchai's elected government uses too much force to clear the airports, however, the protestors could continue to falsely portray themselves as non-violent martyrs suffering under a brutal regime.

The right-wing protesters have expressed hope that a coup would help their cause.

If Thailand's U.S.-trained military did unleash another coup, however, many other Thais would condemn them for reviving the goals of their September 2006 coup.

That putsch ousted an elected prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, and installed a stumbling junta for 15 months which failed to obliterate Thaksin's allies.

During the past few months, the protesters searched for valuable, life-supporting targets to strangle.

Since August, they have occupied the prime minister's Government House office complex -- prompting Somchai to meet his cabinet elsewhere -- and they tried twice to storm Parliament.

Bangkok's international airport became their prized jewel.

They hoped their quasi-insurrection would cause mild-mannered Somchai's government to implode.

Somchai, a former judge, spent much of Thursday securing a court injunction against the protesters, apparently so he would not be blamed for acting dictatorial.

During the past few months, the government had reluctantly allowed the bellowing mobs more rope, expecting they would hang themselves as unpopular bullies by scaring investors, tourists, and ordinary Thais who prefer polite obedience.

"The anti-government protesters could be making the same mistake as Napoleon, who decided to invade Russia and suffered a devastating defeat," predicted Thanong Khanthong, editor of the Nation newspaper.

"Napoleon's armies could seize the territories, but they could not occupy them for long." A leading Marxist at Chulalongkorn University, Associate Political Science Professor Giles Ji Ungpakorn, was more blunt: "Bangkok International Airport has now been closed by fascist thugs," Giles said.

"Thai airports are controlled by the Thai military. It is obvious that the Thai military, who staged an illegal coup in 2006, have quietly supported" the protests.

The mobs "want a dictatorship to replace democracy, because they deem that the majority of the Thai electorate are too ignorant to deserve the right to vote." The protesters are grouped under a deceptively named People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) banner.

But they do not want democratic elections.

They prefer a largely appointed government, because elections repeatedly brought Thaksin and his allies to power, enabling Somchai to become prime minister in September, after a previous Thaksin ally stepped down because of a conflict of interest.

Thaksin won three elections, empowering his five-year administration, until the coup.

The protesters now fear Somchai will help Thaksin return.

Much of Thaksin's support came from the countryside, where poor people enjoyed his cheap health care, easy credit and other give-aways.

Thaksin is currently an international fugitive, after a court sentenced him and his helmet-haired wife, Pojaman, to three years in prison for corruption.

England recently stripped the billionaire couple of their visas, because of their prison sentences.

The PAD have been supported by elements among Bangkok's wealthy elite, middle class, academia, monarchists, media, armed forces, and business community, and opposition Democrat Party.

The PAD's tough young men occasionally use guns, knives, clubs, slingshots and other weapons to assault police and civilian opponents.

But several PAD members were killed or injured during the past few months, when Thaksin's supporters allegedly attacked them in the streets.

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Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism, and his web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

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