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The scene at Thailand’s U-Tapao airport: my AFP story

Bangkok’s international airport remains closed today, and it’s unclear when flights will resume. Yesterday I visited U-Tapao airport, about two hours southeast of Bangkok, where some international flights have been arriving and landing. Here’s an AFP story I wrote about the scene there:

AFP/Bangkok Post: “At U-Tapao: ‘They have killed tourism’

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Bangkok airport closure: Friday update

Here are the latest developments from Bangkok:

— Anti-government protesters continue to occupy Bangkok’s international airport. They have now also forced the closure of Bangkok’s domestic airport.

Thousands of passengers are still stranded here in the city, though they’ve been moved from the airport to various hotels. (Some tourists have reportedly been able to leave Thailand by traveling over-land from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where the airport has a wide range of international flights.)

— Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat has declared a state of emergency, which would allow the government to dislodge protesters from the airports. However, the government seems reluctant to clear out the demonstrators for fear of bloody clashes.

— Rumors were flying here in Bangkok last night that there would be a military coup. That hasn’t happened. But the possibility cannot be dismissed.

Following are links to media coverage:

Reuters: “Q+A-Thailand’s intractable political crisis

A snip:

HOW DOES AIRPORT SIEGE HELP PAD’S CAUSE?

The chaos is costing the PAD public support, especially as tourism, which employs 1.8 million people, will suffer badly.

But its ultimate goal is to make Bangkok ungovernable and trigger a putsch against a government they say is a pawn of ousted and exiled leader Thaksin Shinawatra.

Under an interim military government, the PAD would then have more chance of advancing its “new politics” agenda to ensure a parliament stuffed with appointed grandees.

Some of the PAD’s plans are codenamed “Hiroshima” and “Nagasaki”, and their ideologues have been quoted on the need for political assassinations.

BBC: “Thailand teeters on the brink

The occupation of Thailand’s main international airport is the boldest and riskiest move yet by the People’s Alliance for Democracy, after a string of similar stunts over the past four months.

It has certainly done immense damage to the vital tourist industry, and even many sympathetic Thais will feel that this militant, anti-government movement has gone too far in its quest to unseat the government.

But could this be the shock that finally breaks the deadlock which has paralyzed the country for most of this year?

It has certainly shocked army commander Anupong Paochinda into playing a hand that, while even-handed on the surface – it calls for both new elections and for a PAD withdrawal – is being viewed by many in the government camp as little short of a silent coup.

The reason is complex, but such is the mistrust among different factions in Thailand now they tend to assume the worst of each other.

WSJ: “Thai Protesters Overtake Second Bangkok Airport

Antigovernment protesters swarmed Bangkok’s second major airport and Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat declared a state of emergency at both facilities as a monthslong political crisis appeared headed for a climax.

The developments — coming a day after thousands of protesters took over the country’s main international airport — intensified speculation Thailand could be heading for another military coup.

Late Thursday, there was also some conjecture that Mr. Somchai, who said protesters were “holding the country hostage,” might order Thailand’s police — and possibly not the army — to clear them from the airport terminals. The emergency declaration allows him to prohibit gatherings.

In a nationally televised address, Mr. Somchai said “I do not have any intention to hurt any members of the public,” though it wasn’t clear how demonstrators who have vowed to stay put until Mr. Somchai quits could be removed without force. The premier said the navy and air force will assist police in clearing the airports.

A government spokesman later said police had been instructed to remove the protesters “as soon as possible” but in “a peaceful manner,” according to the Associated Press. The same spokesman urged the country’s army units to stay in their barracks.

IHT/NYT: “Thai Chief Permits Evicting Protesters

Snip from the end of the story:

…The seizure of Bangkok’s airports is radical even by the standards of Thailand’s tempestuous political past.

Despite frequent military coups and changes of government in past decades, the day-to-day operation of Thailand’s bureaucracy had been largely unaffected until now. The airports functioned with little interruption during a military coup in 2006, and, unlike many of its neighbors, Thailand has maintained reliable service in crucial areas like electricity and health care despite political turmoil.

But with the closing of the airports and the occupation of the prime minister’s office since August, politics is now directly interfering with many facets of life in Thailand. The airport disruption alone has caused havoc in Thailand’s tourism industry and disrupted Southeast Asian commerce.

“The protesters have basically closed down the country,” said Ruth Banomyong, an associate professor at Thammasat Business School, Thammasat University, who is one of the region’s leading specialists in logistics.

“Thailand was never considered as a very risky country,” he said. “I don’t think companies would have prepared for this.”

The Nation: “Capital increasingly tense as coup rumours spread

The situation in the capital was extremely tense yesterday as coup rumours prompted reaction from anti-government protesters and their rivals. Both camps mobilised their supporters for street fighting, while government and business offices suggested their staff get out early.

Newspaper offices were flooded with phone calls inquiring or giving “tips” about an imminent coup. A source claimed Army chief Anupong Paochinda had a telephone conversation with Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat to exchange ultimatums.

For ongoing links to news coverage, check out:
— Bangkok Pundit (the post Coup speculation: Live Blog may be of interest)
The Nation Newspaper
Bangkok Post newspaper
2Bangkok

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Bangkok airport closure: more news and analysis

Some updates on the situation here in Bangkok:

TIME: “Thailand’s Political Crisis Becomes a Global One

With a demure smile and a garland of jasmine, Thailand has always welcomed the world. China and Japan may have screened themselves off for centuries, but the ancient kingdom of Siam, as Thailand was once known, thrived on trade and tourism. Even today, the country depends on visitors lured by golden spires and white-sand beaches.

But on Nov. 25, Thailand abandoned its traditional hospitality when antigovernment agitators swarmed Bangkok’s international airport, grounding one of Asia’s busiest air hubs. “Basically, we are hostages,” said Irish tourist Dermuid McAnoy, expressing almost as much frustration toward the protesters as toward airline staff, who seemed to melt away as soon as the crowds armed with bamboo sticks and iron bars appeared. “Yes, we can leave, but we have no place to go.”(See pictures from the Thai protests.)

Thailand’s airport takeover marked an ominous turning point in a months-long political battle that has morphed from sideshow farce to center-stage emergency. “When you close down the gateway to the country, then you have reached the point of a national crisis,” says Panitan Wattanayagorn, a national-security expert at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “In fact, because this now affects Thailand’s connection to the wider world, it is becoming an international crisis.”

NYT/IHT: “Another Thai Airport Shut; General Asks Premier to Quit

Protesters forced the closing of Bangkok’s second airport on Thursday, severing the last remaining commercial air links to the Thai capital.

Until Wednesday, airlines were operating domestic flights out of Don Muang airport, Bangkok’s oldest airfield.

Officials are now considering using military airports in the area to accommodate flights diverted from Suvarnabhumi International Airport, which has been closed since Tuesday evening.

Passengers seeking to leave the country must now drive to other international airports in the country. One of them, Chiang Mai, is an eight-hour drive north of Bangkok, and another, Phuket, is nine hours to the south. All air cargo operations in Bangkok have also been suspended.

Newsweek: “Bangkok’s Bizarre Power Struggle

Many Thais believe that a 100-year-old bronze likeness of King Rama V located in downtown Bangkok emits powerful magic. That is why, fully a century after it was cast in Paris, the likeness has become the object of struggle between top government leaders and a band of rightists seeking to oust them. A few weeks ago, anti-government agitator Sondhi Limthongkul, whose People’s Alliance for Democracy has occupied key official buildings for four months in an effort to topple a government he considers illegitimate, accused his opponents of employing wizardry to channel the statue’s protective forces their way. And to reverse that alleged sorcery, he deployed his own mystics to encircle the statue with used sanitary napkins (collected from the PAD’s rank-and-file) to form a shield of menstrual blood.

It’s no secret that Thailand’s democracy is embattled. But what’s less well known is the extent to which its rival camps have fallen back on astrology and mysticism as they seek to best their political foes.

Economist: “Too much or too little? Thailand and the Philippines give Asian democracy a bad name

Thailand’s three-year-old political crisis continued to rage this week, as the increasingly desperate anti-government movement, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), made a last-ditch effort to provoke violence and force the army to stage another coup. It invaded Bangkok’s main airport, prompting the army chief to call on the government to dissolve parliament and for the PAD itself to cease its protests. The PAD’s thuggish tactics have lost it much of the support it once had among Bangkok’s middle classes. Only a fraction of the promised crowd of 100,000-plus materialised this week for its “final” push to overturn the government.

(Emphasis mine.)

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Bangkok airport closure: my ABCNews.com story

I spent 10 hours at Bangkok’s international airport yesterday talking to stranded passengers and PAD protesters.

Here’s a story I put together for ABCNews.com: “Thai Protests Strand Thousands of Tourists.

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Bangkok’s international airport closed

AP/WSJ: “Protesters Force Bangkok Airport to Suspend Takeoffs

Anti-government demonstrators swarmed Bangkok’s international airport late Tuesday — halting departing flights — as opponents and supporters of Thailand’s government fought running battles in the streets of the city.

Minutes after outbound flights at Suvarnabhumi International Airport were suspended, hundreds of demonstrators — some masked and armed with metal rods — broke through police lines and spilled into the passenger terminal.