Saturday, August 30, 2008

Thailand: airports in Krabi and Phuket closed by protests

For update: Read this post.

The PAD anti-government protests continue in Thailand. The protests, which surged this week -- beginning with the occupation of a television studio, followed by the encampment of protesters outside the Thai Prime Minister's Residence* -- spread across the country Friday. The WSJ reports:

Friday, demonstrators clashed with police on several new fronts, widening the battle lines. About 2,000 demonstrators marched on Bangkok's police headquarters Friday in the center of the capital after law-enforcement officials tried to break up the protest at the Government House. Police warded them off.

Other demonstrators closed down three provincial airports -- including those at the beach resorts of Phuket and Krabi in the country's south. Canceled flights stranded thousands of local and foreign travelers as Thailand gears up for the beginning of its peak tourism season. Tourism accounts for about 6% of Thailand's economy and is a major earner of foreign exchange.**

Rail workers have also gone on strike, deepening the sense of crisis now engulfing Thailand's government.

When I blogged the previous post (see it for background) on the PAD protests, it seemed as if the protesters had truly crossed the line. BBC Bangkok correspondent Jonathan Head pretty had much summed up the situation: "Despite its name, the People's Alliance for Democracy is actually campaigning for an end to democracy."* An Italian newspaper was equally blunt, labeling the mob actions "a putsch," adding, "it is only unclear whether the putsch was successful or not." Yet as bad as it seemed there was reason to hope that -- after months of mob unrest -- the elected government was poised to defeat the royalist mob.

But something seems to have gone terribly wrong. As the protests wore on, and the Thai government did not declare a state of Emergency, it refused to move in decisively to put an end to the civil disobedience. At this hour democracy itself may be in jeopardy.

Why has it come to this?

First, police actions appear to have caused injury -- apparently not serious though -- to protesters. And civil society groups have lashed out against the government. Bangkok Pundit describes "this weird situation where seizing government buildings and protesting there is like some norm and the protesters have been provided moral support by Abhisit, Senators, seemingly all members of the academia, and the Thai press corps. Suddenly, the government has lost legitimacy because a number of PAD protesters were injured." Bangkok pundit suggests the accusations of police brutality are overblown, whereas reports of attacks by the mob against journalists are not being taken seriously.

Second, HM the King of Thailand may have dissuaded Prime Minister Samak from acting more forcefully against the protesters. The prime minister apparently had "an audience he had with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who told him to “enforce the law with extreme caution” and to be “soft and gentle.”"****

Third, thins appear to be going according to a plan. Nick and Andrew, veteran bloggers at New Mandala, have listed four likely "endgames" for PAD. Events of the past few hours suggest to me that -- whether or not that this was the plan -- something very close to the endgame they envisioned is unfolding almost like clockwork. I paraphrased the first three of the four hoped-for scenerios:

  1. King steps in asks Samak to resign in name of "reconciliation."
  2. Escalating confrontation motivates army to intervene extra-constitutionally: a coup.
  3. Government destabilized, economy falters, discrediting the government.
  4. "Elements within the PAD may also be hoping that a heavy-handed government response to the current protest may provide them with some politically useful symbols of repression (and perhaps even some martyrs) that could be used to invigorate future phases of their campaign."

First point: May have occurred already. Apparently it has not happened yet, but Friday night the HM the King apparently met with Samak. We do not know what was said.

The second point: Check. Saturday the army chief refused to obey an order given by the prime minister, and asked the PM to resign.

As to point three, the stock market has already lost ground, and there are signs of economic weakness. It could already be reasonably claimed that the economy is in trouble. Gives weight to points one and two.

The forth point: Check. A prescient predication call by Nick and Andrew. PAD is apparently succeeding at creating martyrs out of people who have mere cuts and scrapes and maybe "a broken bone" -- thanks to a what Bangkok Pundit has exposed to be a complicit media.

In conclusion, I find it hard to believe that this so-called "endgame" -- which has been so outrageously successful -- could be the work of PAD alone. The plan has gone too well for me to believe this group is working independently. I think PAD is part of a more coordinated action, involving other powerful actors in Thai society. What is their endgame?


* Live-blogging the protest on Friday was Absolute Bangkok. New Mandala has good photos depicting protests of Aug. 26. According to one New Mandala photo caption: "Some newspaper readers probably do not realize that the PAD does not merely have erected a huge stage near the UN center, but also established an entire small town of tents." Bangkok's Newley has an interesting slide show of the protests. Bangkok Pundit is discerning fact from fiction, as is Fonzi. Also of interest to me was this BBC News video.

**** Asia Sentinal

*** La Stampa, hat-tip Bangkok Pundit. Interestingly, the article compares events in Thailand today to the rise of fascism in Italy.

**For updates on the status of the airports in Thailand, visit Jot around the world, my travel blog.

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