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."
The yellow-clad demonstrators call themselves the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). But they represent neither the majority of Thai people nor universal democratic values. Their mission is to erase from government any influence of billionaire populist Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed as Prime Minister in a 2006 army coup. Although the telecom tycoon is beloved by many poor Thais who once gave him a record electoral mandate, the urban middle class, which forms the bedrock of the PAD, accuses Thaksin of being a power-hungry strongman. In October, the former P.M. was sentenced in absentia to two years' imprisonment for a conflict of interest conviction. Several other corruption cases against him are working through the Thai courts. (Thaksin maintains he is innocent of all alleged crimes.)
Even from self-imposed exile overseas, Thaksin casts a long shadow. Current Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat may be a soft-spoken judicial expert, but he also happens to be Thaksin's former brother-in-law. Since August, the PAD has besieged Somchai's offices, forcing him to set up a makeshift administration headquarters in the VIP lounge of Bangkok's old airfield. On Nov. 24, the PAD upped the ante, shutting down Thailand's parliament and later overwhelming the old air terminal. Somchai's spokespeople have assured the public that policy-making is going on from a "secret location."
But a government literally on the run is clearly not an effective one. Parts of the Thai capital have been convulsed by gunfire and small-scale explosives. Over the past couple of months, several people, mostly PAD footsoldiers, have been killed in political street violence.
Mayhem is just what the opposition alliance craves. PAD leaders are hoping that the military, which has masterminded 18 coups since Thailand's absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932, will intervene again to contain anarchy and set up a new, Thaksin-free regime. But shortly after the air terminal takeover, the army publicly quashed putsch rumors and called for the PAD to leave the airport. (Army chief Anupong Paochinda did, however, urge Somchai to "return the power to the people" by calling fresh elections.) The military's reluctance to let tanks roll on the streets presumably derives from the fact that its last political interference didn't pan out. True, Thaksin a nemesis of the army in part because his showy, autocratic style was perceived as threatening the influence of Thailand's beloved King was removed from office. But post-coup elections last year brought to power a party dominated by acolytes of the ousted Premier. In essence, Thailand in late 2008 is back to where it was two years ago: divided and rudderless.
The PAD's provocative actions are alienating some Thais, even erstwhile supporters who fear that the ongoing crisis is derailing what once was one of the region's most promising economies. With foreign investors and tourists (who bring in some $16 billion a year) spooked by the political instability and Thailand's manufacturing base bracing itself for a drop in global export demand, national growth forecasts for 2009 hover at a bleak 3%.
Thailand's economy aside, the PAD's fundamental flaw is that it wants to blow things up without having articulated how it will put things back together again. Opposition leaders promise to bring a so-called "new politics" to Thailand. But what that means isn't clear, apart from trying to circumvent the problem of rampant vote-buying by replacing the one-person-one-vote system with a largely appointed parliament. Doing so would ensure that the electorate's pesky habit of returning pro-Thaksin elements to office would cease. But Thailand's reputation as a stable, democratic oasis in Asia would take a body blow.
For his part, Thaksin isn't basking in retirement. Although he vowed to stick to golf, shopping and other non-political pursuits, the former Premier has been phoning in from overseas to rouse his supporters. Earlier this month, he unveiled his new think-tank called Building a Better Future Foundation. In half-page advertisements in international newspapers, Thaksin exhorted readers: "Are you one of Asia's best talents? Join me."
It's not clear what Thaksin wants to do with this "group of rising stars." But he and his supporters will need a deep bench if they are to continue dominating Thai politics. In the coming weeks, the lead party in Thailand's ruling coalition could be dissolved by the Constitutional Court because of an electoral-fraud conviction. If that happens, Somchai and other top party executives will be barred from politics, just as Thaksin and his top cohorts were legally excluded from office last year. Lower-echelon Thaksin stalwarts would have to reconstitute themselves as a proxy party. Still, support from rural voters probably would ensure another victory for the pro-Thaksin camp much to the disgust of the PAD.
Back at the Bangkok airport, PAD executive Puchong Tirawatana continued to stoke antigovernment ire. "This is all because of one man, Thaksin Shinawatra," he said, as a yellow-hued sea of protesters armed with plastic hand-clappers milled around near him. "[Thaksin is] a selfish criminal who is willing to destroy the country for his own personal gain. I'm really worried that violence will increase and the country will be in a civil war." Then, in a marked change of tone, Puchong apologized for the siege that had stranded thousands of tourists in an airport whose Thai name, Suvarnabhumi, or "golden land," seemed particularly inappropriate at that moment. "We don't want to inconvenience people," Puchong said. But such a sentiment probably comes too late. Even when Thailand re-opens its doors, the world may not be interested in returning too soon.
With reporting by Robert Horn/Bangkok