The standoff between the Thai government and the Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD) intensified sharply on Tuesday after PAD protestors seized control of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport, trapping thousands of travellers inside the terminal.
The protestors blocked access roads and at one point demanded entry to the control tower to prevent the aircraft of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat landing after his return from the APEC conference in Peru. Somchai was forced to land at a military airport. The occupation created havoc causing most flights to be cancelled and stranding thousands of tourists and other travellers.
PAD spokesman Panthep Wongpuapan told the media that the occupation would continue until Somchai resigned. After occupying the grounds of Government House in central Bangkok since August, PAD leaders promised to muster 100,000 protestors this week for the “final battle” to bring down the government. A fraction of that number joined the PAD demonstrations.
PAD protestors temporarily surrounded parliament on Monday preventing a session from taking place and cut off electricity supplies at police headquarters. Protestors set up a temporary stage at the Don Muang airport on Tuesday where the Thai cabinet had been forced to meet since the PAD occupation of Government House.
Sporadic violence has taken place. The protests follow a series of bomb and grenade attacks on the PAD occupation at Government House that killed two people and injured several others last week. On Tuesday there were street clashes between pro- and anti-government supporters. Attacks have also taken place on pro-government supporters. At least one of four small bomb blasts on Wednesday reported by the Nation newspaper was directed at a community radio station for taxi drivers who are widely regarded as loyal to the government.
The purpose of PAD’s provocative new protests is not so much to directly force the People Power Party (PPP)-led government from power, but to provide the pretext for the army to step in. While it claims to speak for democracy, the right-wing PAD is being backed by military top brass, the monarchy, state bureaucracy and sections of Bangkok’s middle class who are hostile to the PPP’s economic policies and its rural support base.
PAD first launched its protests in late 2005 against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) government. After months of political turmoil, the army ousted Thaksin in September 2006 and imposed military rule. New elections were held last December which the PPP, the TRT’s successor, won, despite the imposition of a new constitution and a political ban on Thaksin and his top supporters. Thaksin and his wife are now in exile.
In the current situation, the army chief, General Anupong Paochinda, has forbidden the police to use any force against PAD protestors. As a result, PAD was able to occupy the international airport without any resistance. Even if ordered to do so by the prime minister, there is no guarantee that the army or police would clear the airport.
Speaking to the media on Wednesday, General Anupong called on the government to dissolve parliament and hold fresh elections, and on PAD to end its airport occupation. While he declared that the military was “not pressuring the government”, that is exactly what it is doing. Before stepping aside last year, the military pushed through special security laws that gave it the power to sack the government in the case of “a national emergency”.
As one analyst told Asia Times: “The military is playing Jekyll and Hyde—stirring the antagonism on one face, and positioning itself to play saviour on the other.” By giving a free hand to PAD, the military is creating the conditions for violent clashes that could be used to justify another coup. Somchai has rejected General Anupong’s call for the government to resign.
The military and its backers may also be positioning themselves for what amounts to a judicial coup. A Constitutional Court ruling is due soon on charges of electoral fraud against the PPP and two of its coalition partners. A ban on the PPP could pave the way for the creation of a court-ordered “Supreme Council” to take power. An insider at the royal palace told the Asia Times that several known monarchists have been sounded out to serve on the appointed body that could be granted extraordinary powers to make laws by decree and appoint a new government.
The political standoff is being exacerbated by the country’s deepening economic crisis. Thai exports have already been hit by the spreading global recession and shrinking markets in the US and Europe. Thailand’s growth rate for 2009 has been revised down to just 3 percent—less than half this year’s figure. The airport occupation will inevitably affect tourism which is a major foreign exchange earner for Thailand.
Another coup could send the economy into a tailspin. In its 14 months in power, the military junta provoked two major stock market crises by attempting to impose a series of capital controls to restrain foreign investment. PAD leaders regularly denounce Thaksin’s influence over the government and its corruption, but their underlying objection is to the economic restructuring and free trade agreements that the TRT, then the PPP, has implemented, adversely affecting weaker sections of Thai business.
The protracted political confrontation in Thailand is a bitter fight for the levers of state power between competing factions of the ruling elite, both of which are contemptuous of the democratic rights and interests of the vast majority of working people. The decline of the Thai economy is further fuelling the political brawling as both sides scramble to defend their own economic interests. And in turn the intractable political turmoil is compounding Thailand’s economic woes. Neither side has a coherent plan to resolve the economic and political crisis.