Anti-government protesters talk to a driver at the main road to Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport. (Sukree Sukplang/Reuters)
bangkok: Thailand’s main international airport remained shut Wednesday after protesters besieged the facility, startling tourists, halting flights and escalating months of simmering political tensions into a full-blown national crisis.
The airport raid, carried out Tuesday by men wielding metal rods who pushed past riot police officers, was the climax of three years of intermittent protests that have tarnished thailand’s long-standing image as a freewheeling but stable nation.
A series of extreme measures by protesters, including a violent clash with government supporters on Tuesday in Bangkok that left 11 people injured, has brought the government near collapse and left Thailand’s democracy teetering.
The government has struggled to carry on its business while trying to quell the most recent demonstrations, but has found itself consumed by the stalemate. A sit-in at government offices forced Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat to conduct business elsewhere.
This week, protesters began what they called a final push against the country’s leaders. They prevented one important parliamentary session, and have said they plan to prevent any future sessions or Cabinet meetings, effectively paralyzing the government.
The protesters, a loose coalition of royalists, academics and members of the urban elite, say they are frustrated with years of vote-buying and corruption.
Many are also skeptical of Thai democracy in its current form and propose a voting system that would lessen the representation of lower-income Thais, whom they say are particularly susceptible to vote-buying.
The latest protests come amid anxiety over the health of the ailing 80-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej and worries about royal succession. There is also frustration about an underperforming national economy that has not been able to move beyond low-cost manufacturing.
The recent protests, like most of those over the past three years, have centered on Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister, who was removed from power two years ago in a military coup.
On Tuesday, thousands of protesters were camped out on the main entrance ramp to the airport, blocking traffic to the departure terminal. They spread razor wire on the road to limit traffic, which was allowed to trickle through. A truck parked in front of the terminal served as a makeshift stage where a well-known actor, Saranyu Wongkrachang, led the crowd of protesters in song throughout the night.
The protesters, who had mainly confined their demonstrations to their sit-in at the government compound, took to the streets Monday, when they forced the cancellation of parliament and temporarily cut electricity supply to the police headquarters.
On Tuesday, thousands of protesters kept the government on the run, blocking the entrance to its temporary offices north of the city and massing in front of army headquarters.
In the late afternoon a clash erupted between protesters and government supporters. Television showed two protesters shooting handguns in the direction of the government supporters and beating them with metal rods and sticks. There were no reports of deaths on Tuesday.
The video also showed protesters surrounding a motorcycle taxi driver and holding a knife to his throat as he clasped his hands together, begging for mercy. Thaksin has many supporters among taxi drivers. It was unclear what happened to the man.
With nearly daily protests taking place in Bangkok for the past six months, many Thais have grown frustrated.
The print news media, which has been generally critical of the government and supportive of the protests, has recently run articles skeptical of the daily street demonstrations.
One columnist in the Nation newspaper on Tuesday called the protests a “never-ending saga that is futile and a drain on society.”
But the People’s Alliance for Democracy, the group leading the movement to unseat the government, still has a loyal following. The latest spate of protests began in April, but became more serious in August, when the alliance took over the prime minister’s office compound, forcing the previous prime minister to operate out of the VIP terminal of Don Muang Airport, the capital’s older airfield, which is now used exclusively for domestic flights.
On Monday, protesters blocked access to the offices at Don Muang.
“You don’t have to doubt what we will do next,” Somsak Kosaisuk, a protest leader, said Tuesday from a temporary stage set up at Don Muang airport. “First, we will not let the Cabinet use this place for their meetings anymore. Second, wherever they go for their meetings, we have our special troops that will follow them.”
A Cabinet meeting had been planned for Wednesday, but government officials said it might be pushed back.
The prime minister was scheduled to return late Wednesday from a trip to Peru, where he attended a summit meeting of Asian and Pacific leaders.
As the Thai economy slows down as the global financial crisis causes ripples here, and as the stalemate between the government and the protesters deepens, many Thais are hoping for a resolution.
“How is it going to end?” said Bharavee Boonsongsap, a 34-year-old producer for MTV Thailand. “I keep asking people but they have no answer.”
“Thais are fighting Thais,” Bharavee said. “People have become aggressive, and even children have been taught to hate the opposite side.”
Janesara Fugal contributed reporting.