Thailand: Heading for mobocracy?

Thailand surged towards mob rule after a right-wing, anti-government protest movement threatened more mayhem after storming Bangkok’s international airport, forcing it to shut down. Leaders of the Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD), despite the name, want to roll back electoral democracy and are calling for a military coup. They announced Wednesday that shutting down Suvarnabhumi airport was part of a strategy to bring down the six-party coalition government.

An attempt by the country’s powerful army chief, Gen. Anupong Paojinda, to offer a solution to reduce the political temperature was promptly rejected by the PAD. At a late afternoon press conference, Anupong urged the government, led by the People’s Power Party (PPP), to dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections as a way out. But the PAD has already dismissed the idea. Shortly before Anupong met the press Wednesday, Sondhi Limthongkul, media firebrand and leader of the PAD, said that there is no space for negotiations until Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat resigns. The PAD repeated that message after Anupong spoke.

The government has already hinted that giving in to the right-wing PAD would not be healthy for the country’s democracy. The current coalition was elected at a December 2007 poll, marking a return to democracy after a September 2006 coup, Thailand’s 18th military putsch. Anupong, in fact, ruled out the military intervention that the PAD prefers. “We cannot stage a coup,” he said.

“We have talked with many people from the government, private and academic sector and they say that a coup is not the solution.”

But while the country waits for the next moves from the government and the PAD, consensus here is that the storming of the airport has smashed a big hole in Thailand’s already struggling tourism sector. All flights have been cancelled at the four billion US dollar new airport, opened in 2006, to serve the nearly 15 million tourists expected to pass through its cavernous terminal annually. Over 15 countries have already issued travel warnings following chaotic scenes at the airport, where over 3,000 tourists were left stranded and many Thai staff manning booths fled the scene. Compounding the problem has been the evasive stance by the airport authorities to assist foreign airlines.

The country stands to lose 400 million baht (13.2 million dollars) in tourist revenues for every day the current airport crisis continues, one report here estimated. That comes on top of existing bad news, adds the Bangkok Post newspaper, which stated that due to “higher cost of travelling and our domestic disturbance, foreign tourist arrivals were down 16.5 per cent. The PAD’s storming of the airport “has taken protests here to a new level. It is anarchist,” says Laurent Malespine, head of Don’t Blink, a political and media research company. “The disruption of normal life is worse than before. This is something Thais cannot accept.” The PAD’s campaign is aimed at stopping former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, now living in exile to escape being arrested for crimes he allegedly committed during his term from 2001-2006, from returning to politics. According to the PAD, the current government is a “puppet’’ of Thaksin, who was ousted by the military in the 2006 coup. — IPS