Less than 48 hours after shutting down Bangkok's international airport, anti-government protesters have forced the closure of the Thai capital's domestic airfield. The occupation of Don Muang airport by 3,000 members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in the early hours of Nov. 27 was an attempt to prevent government ministers from flying to the northern city of Chiang Mai to attend a cabinet meeting called by embattled Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat at his home.
That attempt to further disrupt Thailand's leadership failed. By Thursday morning several ministers and other lawmakers from the ruling party had arrived at the Prime Minister's home in Chiang Mai. More than 100 police officers guarded the housing estate, where Somchai returned the day before after having been at an overseas conference when the PAD began its airport incursions.
After months of anti-government protests in Bangkok, the opposition alliance dramatically upped the ante earlier this week when they launched incursions into key Bangkok buildings. The protesters are demanding that Somchai resign and dissolve parliament. Their goal is to prevent Somchai's ruling People Power Party from rewriting the constitution to, in the words of the PAD, "whitewash the crimes" committed by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra "and his cronies." Somchai is Thaksin's brother-in-law. The protesters fear that changes to the constitution will pave the way for Thaksin's return to power.
Thaksin, who was ousted in a September 2006 bloodless coup, has been convicted in a Thai court of conflict of interest over a land deal he approved while prime minister and was sentenced in absentia last month to two years in jail. The former prime minister, who insists that he is innocent and that the courts are under the control of his enemies, has fled Thailand and was last reported to be in Dubai.
Despite their failure to prevent the prime minister and his cabinet from meeting, PAD members said they would persist in their campaign to bring down the democratically elected government and prevent Thaksin's potential return. "We can't give into the devil," said Vimla Sarapai, a 58-year-old PAD supporter as she joined the demonstration at Bangkok's international airport. "We need change in Thailand. We need an Obama for Thailand," she said.
PAD protesters have now occupied the prime minister's office compound in Bangkok, blocked access to the Parliament building, protested in front of various ministries and shut down two airports. The group cancelled plans to block the entrance to the military's airport in Bangkok this morning after it was told that ministers would not use it to reach Chiang Mai. Several ministers did, in fact, leave for Chiang Mai from that military airfield. Others, stuck in Bangkok's notorious traffic jams, missed the flight.
On Wednesday, in a televised press conference Army Commander in Chief General Anupong Paochinda recommended that Somchai resign and call a new election, and that the PAD end all its protests. Since Thailand abolished absolute monarchy in 1932, the army has launched 18 coupsŚand the words of generals tend to carry weight. But both the PAD and Somchai have rejected the army chief's call. In a televised speech late Wednesday night, Somchai said, "it is not important if I am Prime Minister. But it is important that I protect democracy." Meanwhile, the PAD has refused a court order to leave Bangkok International Airport, also known as Suvarnabhumi. Airport officials told wire services that they expected Don Muang domestic terminal will reopen Thursday evening. But even then, Thailand's battered political system will still be grounded.