Bangkok: Reds vs Yellows

Thailand’s airport authorities (AOT) are not amused. They have been losing around 50 million baht (about US$ 1.4 million) a day over the last four days, and the economic repercussions go much, much further. Yet strangely enough, they left the power on, the air-conditioning going full blast, and even the muted muzak stayed on. Even if the siege ended today, 6 days later, it would take them 2 days to clean up, reboot systems, and have aviation officials give an all clear. So far the only headway AOT has made has been to get PAD to allow aircraft to be transferred to other airports, a result of what AOT’s director calls “begging, not negotiating”.

The export and import industry are set to have lose around 80 million dollars by one estimate. Some businesses who make their profit on ‘last-minute’ stock manufacturing orders or fresh produce import and export have already gone bust. And those manufacturers who export have lost credibility as their high season orders get stuck.

On a personal note, more touching was the plight of some 400 Muslim pilgrims from southern Thailand who have been hoping to go on the HAJ. They have paid up 145,000 bahts (US$4,200) each, a minor fortune for these villagers, and have very little recourse to alternative means of transport. They all expressed their disappointment in the government’s lack of action on their behalf, not to mention the lack of any reliable information, though by Friday, 4 days into their ordeal, they were promised that they would be flown out “soon”. Though how that was to happen was not clear for days.

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Unlike the tourists, they were not bussed to hotels in Bangkok. The terminal became their home away from home. The last time I saw them, on Saturday, I asked them how they felt. They replied in Malay: “Ya, biasa saja. Kami dapat makan (gratis) tiap hari, terima kaseh. Allahu Akbar”. (“We’re ok, everything is ok. We get free food everyday, thank you. God is great”. Finally on Sunday their patience was rewarded – they boarded buses in orederly fashion, off to U-tapao, where they would have to wait at least until midnight for their Iran Air charter flight.

During these last days the stand-off between the PAD and the government was further complicated by rumours swirling through the capital about a possible army coup. Army commander General Anupong coming out and urging PM Somchai Wongsawat, newly returned from the APEC meeting in Peru, to resign and for the PAD to pull back from the airport had little effect except to fuel more speculation. On Thursday tanks rolling through the capital were called a “display for cadets”. Meanwhile PAD protesters at the airport, seemingly impervious to all rumours, dug in deeper. Perhaps they were encouraged by the news that the army had refused to back up any police action after PM Somchai declared both Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang airports as areas of emergency.

Friday the Prime Minister declared an emergency in the Suvarnabhumi area, authorizing the use of force to remove protesters, nothing had changed. Late in the afternoon the news went out that the PM had just sacked his chief of police, General Phatcharawat Wongsuwan, whose anti-Thaksin stance is well known. Meanwhile the word on the streets is that General Anuphong is actually on Thaksin’s payroll, but no confirmation. Of course. Rumour is the order of the day, and confirmation seems to be boring for most people here.dsc_3456.jpg

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PAD has reinforced their barricades. The Army has set up barricades near the airport. For their part police set up check points on all roads leading to the airport and moved in thousands of men around the airport. One media van got shot up at PAD check points early on Monday morning, mainly because Thai journalists have taken to wearing “stop the violence” white T-shirts. Pro government supporters in bright red shirts have come into Bangkok from the countryside, holding a massive rally of their own. Yet by Monday morning there was still no resolution. PAD supporters reiterated their defiance, saying they would fight to the death unles Somchai resigned. Tensions along the barricades mounted, with ugly shoving matches between rough and ready PAD mobs and riot police displaying as much restraint as possible.

On Saturday at least one police barricade was overrun by PAD cadres. The police retreated, leaving behind their shields and some helmets which the PAD guards promptly redistributed amongst their own ‘troops’. dsc_3467.jpgAt the PAD barricades women who look more like office workers pick out batons. I asked one woman in her thirties who was waving hers in the air if she had ever used a baton before, and she sheepishly admitted she hadn’t, “But if we have to we will”.

The mood at the airport is defiant, people keep arriving with golfclubs. But rumours and reports of Chamlong saying that the crisis will end before December 2nd, the King’s birthday seem at odds with the mood, and also Sondhi’s statements that there “will absolutely be no negotiations”. Meanwhile both Chamlong and the police are saying “there will be good news on the 2nd”. Whether they are talking about the court verdict which is expected to outlaw the ruling PPP party is not clear. More rumours in a complicated conflict, in which the only thing is clear is the shirt colour of each side.

Thailand’s tourist industry, already apprehensive over global economic turndown-related cancellations this November, is reeling from the implications of this 6 day shutdown. Thousands of stranded tourists, furious over the slow reaction from the government towards their plight, will definitely not be goodwill ambassadors. There is an estimate of a 50% cancellations these coming months.

6 days after the occupation of the airport began, there are still more than a hundred thousand passengers stranded in Bangkok. There was still huge confusion over what to do, where to go, and the Tourism Authority of Thailand struggled to put some order into the mess. TAT, Thai Airways and other agenicies set up emergency check in points in some of the city’s hotels – but getting the information of where to go was a matter of luck. Scenes at these “city check-ins” were chaotic. Consulate and airline oficials were shouting through bullhorns, passengers had given up queueing and were pressing in a mob-like on to makeshift counters set up with laptops manned by frazzled airline personnel. Multilingual arguments were the order of the day. Those who got checked-in left for U-tapao military airport 190 kms away – only to face more chaos as this Vietnam era airfield, with hardly any commercial facilities, struggled to deal with thousands of impatient travelers.dsc_3672-as-smart-object-2.jpg

Some travelers were very philosophical about it. South African businessman Michael du Pessis was, incredibly enough, told by a Cathay Pacific employee to go back to the airport on Saturday where he was supposed to be picked up by bus. Accompanied by his 70 year old mother, when he realized that he had walked into an even bigger build up of protesters, he remained stoic and smiled: “I guess it was bad information”. On Sunday at the Centara Convention Centre in Bangkok I met Swedish Ana Duneborn, pregnant with her second child and traveling with her husband and two year old daughter, was transiting from Sydney to Sweden – they were supposed to be in Suvarnabhumi airort for two hours. Five days later she could still smile about it: “Look, of course I want to get home. I don’t really want to seem happy, but we were lucky. Because we were checked in, we got free hotel nights. Other people who hadn’t checked didn’t even get that!”.

Whatever negotiations or politcal moves may be going on, it is clear that cadres on both sides are digging in, and there seems to be an inability to resolve situations which can only hurt the country as a whole. One friend of mine edited a Russian TV crews footage of a red shirt manufacturing bombs, apparently screaming invectives at the PAD. In the end the only result of this ‘color coded conflict’ as BBC’s Jonathan Head calls it, is a deepening rift in Thai society, something that the opposing politicians don’t really seem to be willing to anything about. Today, Monday 2:20 an sms update: PAD supporters leaving PM’s offices which they have occupied for 3 months to reinforce their comrades at the airports……

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