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Dysfunctional Thailand Allowed Airport Seizures

Dysfunctional Thailand Allowed Two Airports To Be Siezed


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Travelers, businessmen and reporters, unable to fly through Bangkok's barricaded airports, were telling the world on Friday about dysfunctional Thailand, including a prediction that Al Qaeda terrorists will be delighted to learn how easy it is to seize two major airports.

Other travelers were desperately plotting escape routes from this Southeast Asian nation, which offers easy overland border crossings into Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia, where international flights are available.

"Al Qaeda must be salivating in delight, knowing that with a little will power, they can take over an airport quite easily and nobody will do anything," the scornful yet well-connected Thailand Jumped the Shark blog said on Friday.

"Shouldn't every major airport, and airline, in the world have a contingency plan for a hostile takeover of an airport?"

The protesters "could take hostages," but Thai security forces failed to prevent the massive glass-encased airport being seized.

Hundreds of shouting, stick-waving, anti-government protesters marched into Bangkok's expensive, sprawling, international airport on Tuesday.

Facing no resistance, the mob took over Bangkok's international airport while it was packed with thousands of international travelers.

Their control over Suvarnabhumi International Airport, and Bangkok's smaller mostly domestic Don Muang airport, "turns Thailand into a banana republic," Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk wrote in Friday's Nation, an English-language newspaper published in Bangkok.

Pravit's column was headlined "Held Hostage" because he was trapped in Seoul, South Korea, unable to fly here because his Cathay Pacific plane cancelled its Hong Kong to Bangkok route.

"I have wasted time and money" because of the airport siege, including "extra hotel bills, meals, work disruption. And I'm not alone."

Other newspapers, blogs and media echoed similar woes, plus harsh analysis of Thailand's paralysis.

Adding to the dangerous stalemate, Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat spent Friday self-exiled 350 miles north of Bangkok, hiding from Thailand's army.

The prime minister feared powerful Army Chief Gen Anupong Paojinda, or other army officers, might somehow neutralize him during a coup.

"Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat will remain in Chiang Mai for the time being, as the army situation is unsettled," government deputy spokeswoman Suparat Nakbunnam told reporters on Friday.

"From now on, the prime minister's schedules will be confidential."

Appearing nervous, the soft-spoken, slender Somchai said in a nationwide televised broadcast on Friday that "security forces will use peaceful means" to clear both airports soon.

Somchai imposed a "state of emergency" on the two airports on Thursday.

He said the police, navy and air force would evict the airport's mobs.

The prime minister did not include the army in his plan to clear the airports, apparently worried they would not follow orders.

The protest "leaders will never negotiate with police," boasted the movement's top leader, Sondhi Limthongkul, during a rally on Friday at Government House, which is the prime minister's office complex that has been occupied by the same protestors since August.


The prime minister on Friday demoted Thailand's national police chief, Gen Phatcharawat Wongsuwan, apparently because police failed to solve the escalating crisis.

The protesters inside Bangkok's international airport have strutted and yelled, but remained mostly peaceful throughout Friday.

They camped in its gorgeous, air-conditioned lounges alongside the few remaining travelers who slept on the floor and in chairs.

Most travelers, and virtually all tourists, shifted to hotels.

Many of the protesters appeared to be middle class men, women and children who wave noisy plastic "hand clappers," giggle, sing, eat, nap, and take souvenir photographs of each other.

On the airport's perimeter, however, tough men brandishing wooden clubs, thick metal pipes, slingshots and other weapons scan the nearby highway to see who is approaching.

They barricaded the international airport's highway entrances with parked vehicles, stacks of boxes and baggage carts, and debris.

They invaded the airport's control tower, and enjoy a wide view of the surrounding urban area.

Since Tuesday, they were able to freely supply the hundreds of protesters inside the international airport with food, water, cooking equipment, medicine and other items, brought in by vehicles which the authorities allowed through.

Belatedly, on Friday night, dozens of police armed with M-16 assault rifles arrived at a main road leading into Suvarnabhumi International Airport, and set up road blocks to prevent more vehicles from entering.

About 200 more police, armed with wooden clubs and riot shields, set up near the international airport's entrance on Friday, parking large trucks nearby.

While the siege has remained peaceful, a handful of people on both sides died during the past few months amid street clashes between protesters and government supporters, and an occasional grenade attack.

The protesters call themselves the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), but they oppose democratic elections and want to weaken Thailand's democracy by appointing most politicians.

In a reverse class war, the PAD are a minority of Bangkok's elite, businesses men, middle class, and others struggling against Thailand's majority rural poor and most voters.

Their lopsided urban fight began a few years ago, during former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's elected administration.

They rallied in the streets until the military agreed with their demands and staged a bloodless coup in September 2006, ousting Thaksin.

After a lackluster, 15-month regime, the coup leaders allowed an election, but were stunned when most Thais voted for Thaksin's allies.

After one pro-Thaksin prime minister stepped down, because of a conflict of interest, Somchai became premier last September.

The PAD demand the resignation of Somchai, who is Thaksin's brother-in-law.

They also demand all of Thaksin's allies be barred from politics, and any votes they received be invalidated.

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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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