Thai Protests Strand Thousands of Tourists

Protesters were largely cordial, handing out water, food to stranded tourists.

November 26, 2008, 9:54 AM

BANGKOK, Thailand, Nov. 26, 2008 -- More than 3,000 passengers are stranded here today in the Thai capital after Bangkok's international airport was shut down by masses of anti-government protesters. Demonstrators clad in yellow, symbolizing the revered Thai king, stormed the arrivals hall Tuesday, triggering airport authorities to cancel all flights.

Passengers at the world's 18th busiest airport were left with few instructions for where to go or when flights would be resumed, although the travelers have since been transported to hotels around the city.

Once flights were canceled, airline staff hastily abandoned check-in counters and immigration-control officers packed up and went home. Passengers were stuck in the airport overnight, left to sleep on floors while demonstrators held a rally outside.

The biggest complaint among tourists was a lack of communication. "No one told us our flight was cancelled, there were just rumors," said Mike Thompson, who was on his way back to England with his wife Karen. "There's no one at any of the desks and no one has spoken to us. ... We just don't know anything ... no one's telling us anything. That's the annoying part."

The demonstrators -- a group called the People's Alliance for Democracy, or PAD -- have been holding ongoing protests through Bangkok since May. They say Thailand's prime minister, the democratically elected Somchai Wongsawat, is corrupt.

Linda Edwards, a mother of four children who was trying to get home to Richmond, Va., for Thanksgiving, said, "I understand democracy, but it's not democratic to hold other people against their will. What does that have to do with democracy? Why are they protesting here at the airport? They've trapped citizens of the whole world here."

But the protesters were largely cordial. They handed out bottles of water to tourists and apologized for the inconvenience. Still, when one demonstrator heard a stranded passenger from New York City complaining about being stuck in the airport with his wife and 7-year-old son, the man stepped forward. "This is our country," he said. "You have no choice."

Then he turned and walked away.

The crisis has roots going back to September 2006. That's when Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's then-prime minister, was ousted in a military coup. His accusers say he was power-hungry and corrupt, but his populist policies earned him widespread support among the country's poor voters in the agrarian countryside.

The putsch came after months of sustained protests from the PAD -- the same group that now surrounds the airport, and that has occupied the grounds of a government complex in downtown Bangkok since May. The PAD is a mix of Bangkok's middle class and elite. They say that Thailand's rural voters are uneducated, and they want to overthrow Somchai and replace his government with one that's largely appointed, not elected.

The day at the airport was a bizarre one. On the expressway leading to the Suvarnabhumi international airport in the early morning hours, demonstrators manned concrete barriers enforced with razor wire, blocking access to the terminal. But the airport could easily be reached via an access road.

Once inside, the occupied airport seemed more like a carnival than a protest. While some demonstrators in camouflage uniforms patrolled the airport wielding metal rods as weapons, others were decidedly upbeat. One man wore a mirrored cape and Batman mask, while a compatriot brandished a Thai flag. The two posed for photos in front of the arrivals board, where dejected backpackers took in the long list of canceled flights to far-flung destinations. Still other protesters camped out in the terminal, sleeping on mats, chatting and listening to portable radios.

Elsewhere, weary tourists tried to rest behind abandoned check-in counters, sleeping on conveyor belts, in steel baggage carriers and even in plastic tubs designed to hold luggage. For their part, protesters made themselves at home in the cramped airport bathrooms. Men washed their faces and hair in sinks, while others lounged on the tile floors, re-charging their cell phones in the bathroom's electrical outlets. When the lines at the women's bathrooms grew long, they simply moved to stalls in the men's rooms.

Many airport restaurants were closed but a few coffee shops and convenience stores were open. At a Starbucks, it was business as usual -- with a twist. "Jingle Bells" played from the store's speakers and passengers sipped lattes, while outside, in the balmy tropical heat, demonstrators hefted a sign that read "Bandit government, snatch from people, go to hell."

And then there was the food. Demonstrations in Thailand, a country in which people are proud of their fiery cuisine and snack whenever possible, are never complete without savory vittles. Women cooked huge vats of minced chicken with rice and gave out dishes to protesters and tourists alike. Men handed out cans of sweet, iced coffee. And everywhere, roving demonstrators beckoned tourists to sample fried rice in white Styrofoam containers. One protester even hauled a mechanical juicer into the terminal and handed out cups of fresh orange juice.

In the afternoon, airport buses began hauling tourists to Bangkok hotels. Travelers lined up at escalators, some waiting hours to get on buses. As the day came to a close -- and the occupation of the airport reached the 24-hour mark -- most tourists had gone and news filtered out that the prime minister would be granted a meeting with the king, the revered Bhumibol Adulyadej, who enjoys universal adoration in this country of 65 million.

And news also emerged that Thailand's Army chief, Anupong Paochinda, had called on prime minister Somchai to step aside. The suggestion carries enormous weight here, where there is a long history of military interventions.

But Somchai refuses to quit, and the demonstrators refuse to leave until he does. Much will depend on Somchai's meeting with the king tonight.

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