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Darwinian Struggle To Find Ticket Out Of Thailand


A Darwinian Struggle To Find Airplanes Out Of Thailand

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Emergency flights are evacuating thousands of Bangkok's grounded passengers, but that is only a trickle of the 100,000 or more people who want to escape this country's insurrection.

Grenade attacks wounded 51 anti-government protestors on Sunday, heightening fear among travelers stuck in Thailand, though no passengers have been hurt.

In a Darwinian struggle, the rich buy tickets for expensive helicopters and chartered planes, flying from airstrips elsewhere in Thailand, while protesters blockade Bangkok's international and domestic airports.

Others desperately scramble into taxis, buses and trains to reach those few scattered airports, only to find thousands of people in similar straits, sweating, arguing or grinning when told that some waiting lists already include thousands of other names.

One possible way to fly out of Thailand is from U-Tapao's runways, built by America to launch B-52 bombers and other warplanes against Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Today, U-Tapao is a Thai navy base ringed by armed troops, who are letting in baggage-toting travelers for a small number of diverted flights out.

Unlike the zero security at Bangkok's two airports, Thai navy officials said they would use force to protect U-Tapao if any anti-government protesters try to blockade the sprawling facility.

U-Tapao is about 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Bangkok, near Pattaya, an infamously hedonistic, seaside holiday destination.

Some chose to travel overland across into Laos, Cambodia, or Malaysia and hope for international flights from there, or from southern Thailand's Phuket island.

Coming the other way, more travelers arrived in Bangkok on Sunday by bus and train from elsewhere in the region, including many who were on holidays in Thailand's lush countryside, or in China, Burma, Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam.

Bangkok is a regional hub for international flights, so some incoming overland travelers had their return bookings scheduled for Sunday, or later this week, and were aggravated to hear the blockade had not been lifted.

The protesters' occupation of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport since Tuesday, and domestic Don Muang airport since Wednesday, destroyed much of Thailand's ability to fly people in and out of this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian country, or airfreight imports and exports.

Thailand is hemorrhaging nearly 100 million U.S. dollars a day in lost tourism, restaurant, hotel, import, export and other revenue, after anti-government protesters shut down this country's two biggest airports without firing a shot.

In a bizarre breach of airport security, Thailand's security officials passively allowed thousands of shouting, club-wielding protestors to march into Bangkok's international airport on Tuesday, and occupy its lavish, sprawling departure and arrival lounges, passport control areas, customs offices, and ultimately its control tower.

A day later, Thailand's security forces stood by and allowed anti-government protesters to seize Bangkok's smaller, domestic airport.

Several commercial airlines also discovered about 90 of their planes were trapped on the tarmac, unable to lift off.

Those planes are still parked next to the airports' abandoned gates, costing the airline companies countless dollars in lost ticket sales and eventual maintenance problems.

The protesters are led by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), who want to cancel the last election which their preferred politicians lost, and replace democratic voting with a vague system of appointed politicians.

The elitist, rightwing, royalist PAD leads a minority of urban wealthy and middle class protesters against Thailand's majority rural poor and their supporters.

The PAD insists the poor are too ignorant, and easily bribed, to vote correctly.

The PAD is led by Sondhi Limthongkul who is a frustrated telecommunications tycoon.

His sidekick is retired Maj-Gen Chamlong Srimuang who is a Buddhist spiritualist, alcohol prohibitionist and successful anti-abortion campaigner.

They refuse to vacate Bangkok's two airports until they oust Somchai Wongsawat, who became prime minister in September and leads a hugely popular People Power Party in a coalition.

Mr. Somchai is a brother-in-law of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a 2006 military coup which was cheered by the PAD.

The protesters want all of Mr. Thaksin's political allies barred from politics.

Mr. Thaksin is an international fugitive, along with his wife, after the couple were recently convicted of corruption, and both sentenced to three years imprisonment.

Meanwhile on Sunday, a grenade injured 49 protesters who have illegally occupied the prime minister's Government House offices downtown since August.

About 20 minutes later, two more devices exploded at PAD leader Sondhi's television station, without injuring anyone, and not disrupting his propaganda broadcasts.

But two people were reportedly injured on Sunday in an explosion near Bangkok's Don Muang domestic airport.

Police were unable, or unwilling, to confront protestors at Bangkok's two airports on Sunday.

More than 100 police retreated so rapidly from Suvarnabhumi International Airport on Saturday that protesters were able to collect several police riot shields, and deflate the tires of a few police vans.

Many Thais expect a possible breakthrough on December 2, when a Constitutional Court may rule on alleged electoral fraud by the government's ruling People Power Party, and two smaller parties, which could result in their dissolution.

But the PPP may simply join a different, newly created party, to stay in power.

The other date Thais are focusing on is December 4, when revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej traditionally gives a speech one day before his birthday.

Thais usually ensure the country is calm, peaceful and united during the monarch's birthday, which has led some to predict a possible end to the airports' occupation by then.

*****

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

ENDS

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