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POLITICS-THAILAND: Heading For Mobocracy?

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Nov 26 2008 (IPS) - Thailand surged towards mob rule after a right-wing, anti-government protest movement threatened more mayhem after storming Bangkok’s international airport, forcing it to shut down.

Leaders of the Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD), despite the name, want to roll back electoral democracy and are calling for a military coup. They announced Wednesday that shutting down Suvarnabhumi airport was part of a strategy to bring down the six-party coalition government.

An attempt by the country’s powerful army chief, Gen. Anupong Paojinda, to offer a solution to reduce the political temperature was promptly rejected by the PAD. At a late afternoon press conference, Anupong urged the government, led by the People’s Power Party (PPP), to dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections as a way out.

But the PAD has already dismissed the idea. Shortly before Anupong met the press Wednesday, Sondhi Limthongkul, media firebrand and leader of the PAD, said that there is no space for negotiations until Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat resigns. The PAD repeated that message after Anupong spoke.

The government has already hinted that giving in to the right-wing PAD would not be healthy for the country’s democracy. The current coalition was elected at a December 2007 poll, marking a return to democracy after a September 2006 coup, Thailand’s 18th military putsch.

Anupong, in fact, ruled out the military intervention that the PAD prefers. ‘’We cannot stage a coup,’’ he said. ‘’We have talked with many people from the government, private and academic sector and they say that a coup is not the solution.’’

But while the country waits for the next moves from the government and the PAD, consensus here is that the storming of the airport has smashed a big hole in Thailand’s already struggling tourism sector.

All flights have been cancelled at the four billion US dollar new airport, opened in 2006, to serve the nearly 15 million tourists expected to pass through its cavernous terminal annually.

Over 15 countries have already issued travel warnings following chaotic scenes at the airport, where over 3,000 tourists were left stranded and many Thai staff manning booths fled the scene. Compounding the problem has been the evasive stance by the airport authorities to assist foreign airlines with flights into and out of Bangkok, an Asian airline official said. ‘’The situation has gone from bad to worse.’’

The country stands to lose 400 million baht (13.2 million dollars) in tourist revenues for every day the current airport crisis continues, one report here estimated.

That comes on top of existing bad news, adds the ‘Bangkok Post’ newspaper, which stated that due to ‘’higher cost of travelling and our domestic disturbance, foreign tourist arrivals were down 16.5 percent, while the average rate of occupancy at hotels around the country dropped to 45 percent’’.

Revenue from tourism account for six percent of the country’s economy and was expected to hit 700 billion baht (21 billion dollars) this year – ‘’a goal that is unlikely to be met now’’ – the Post added in its Wednesday edition.

The airport siege began on Tuesday night, when hundreds of PAD supporters, sporting yellow shirts in a sign of loyalty to the country’s monarch, arrived in a convoy of vehicles and blocked two ends of a road in front of the terminal.

While PAD leaders mounted a mobile stage to rant against the government, thuggish-looking PAD men, armed with wooden clubs, iron bars and knives walked into the terminal to assert their authority. Some of the men wore black balaclavas, with faces covered, to conceal their identity.

On Tuesday night, hundreds of policemen, armed with riot gear, gave in to a PAD mob in the same way they had given in to thousands of PAD protesters who had laid siege to parliament on Monday to block the legislature from sitting. On that day, the PAD also stormed the old airport, north of Bangkok, to stop a cabinet meeting.

Such tactics have grown out of the PAD’s success in late August, when it forcefully took over Government House, the prime minister’s office, and converted it into a staging area for protests.

The PAD draws its support from urban elites, royalists and the conservative bureaucrats. Its ability to break the law with impunity stems from the backing it has got from very influential figures in this kingdom.

The PAD’s storming of the airport ‘’has taken protests here to a new level. It is anarchist,’’ says Laurent Malespine, head of Don’t Blink, a political and media research company. ‘’The disruption of normal life is worse than before. This is something Thais cannot accept.’’

Others are harsher following this week’s turn of events. ‘’This is the biggest form of political blackmail ever experienced in Thailand,’’ says Sunai Phasuk, Thai researcher for Human Rights Watch, the global rights lobby. ‘’They are holding the entire country hostage.’’

‘’The PAD has committed grave violations of domestic law and violated domestic and international human rights principles,’’ Sunai told IPS. ‘’They have been using weapons to attack people with the aim to kill. This movement is turning into a criminal gang.’’

This week saw such a confrontation, when armed PAD guards were captured on camera shooting at pro-government supporters with live rounds of bullets. Behind the men firing with revolvers was another PAD supporter holding up a picture of the country’s monarch.

The PAD, too, has seen two of its supporters die and hundreds injured during a confrontation with the police in early October when it surrounded the parliament to stop the legislature from sitting. There have also been other clashes between PAD guards, armed with clubs and revolvers, and pro-government supporters, some armed with knives.

The PAD’s campaign is aimed at stopping former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, now living in exile to escape being arrested for crimes he allegedly committed during his term from 2001-2006, from returning to politics.

According to the PAD, the current government is a ”puppet” of Thaksin, who was ousted by the military in the 2006 coup.

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