An update: The airport is still closed. The anti-government protesters attacked a police checkpoint and confiscated ten vehicles and the riot gear inside. But, in a telling twist, the protest leaders also had a face-to-face meeting with the police, asking for their increased protection. This after a bomb was thrown at their protest at Government House, injuring fifty people, four seriously.
Airports of Thailand, the semi-public company that runs Suvarnabhumi and Don Meuang airports, reached an agreement with the protesters to allow pilots from the various airlines to ferry the 88 airplanes that are stranded at the airports, out of the country. The protest leaders agreed to this because they didn’t want to be responsible for any vandalism that might happen to the planes.
Pro-government protesters gathered in front of Bangkok City Hall and they promise to take back the airport if the police can not or will not. There are calls for exposure of who is actually supporting the anti-government protesters, suggestions that they must be supported by very influential members of Thailand’s elite if they are allowed to act with impunity for so long.
Much seems to hinge on Tuesday’s Constitutional Court verdict in a case about voter fraud. Three parties, including the government majority party, the PPP, are facing dissolution. This might pacify the anti-government protesters who might then clear the airports. But the pro-government faction sees a potential “coup by court” and is already saying they will fight any miscarriage of justice.
Can it continue? Many observers say it will have to come to an end by Friday, December 5th – His Majesty the King’s 81st birthday. But who knows what will really happen?
But that’s just the headlines. The real story is what’s happening with the tens of millions of Thais who are not protesting. A poll published this morning shows that 92% of Thais surveyed think both sides should put their differences aside for the good of the country. 76% see it as “a national shame”.
A few days ago, Ajarn Yai, the former director of the school where I volunteered as an English teacher, called Tawn. She wanted to convey her apologies to me on behalf of the Thai people, but was too embarrassed to call me directly. She said that if I had any guests in town, I should bring them down to Samut Songkhram province and she would entertain them.
Ajarn Yai (“Ajarn Yai” means “big teacher” in Thai) asked whether Trish was still in town. She was relieved to hear that Trish had made it out in time and said that if Trish was still in town, she would have offered to have Trish stay with her for a few days, to take the burden off of me.
That’s sweet, isn’t it? And very telling.
Here’s the top-of-the-fold story in this morning’s The Nation, one of the two English-language papers here in Bangkok. They say a picture says a thousand words and in this case, it is probably more like a full novel about Thai culture.
What you see is a traditional Thai dancer (Tawn is pretty sure she’s a he, though) entertaining crowds at U-Tapao Airport. U-Tapao is a miltary base about 190 km (two hours’ drive) southeast of Bangkok, built by the Americans during the Vietnam War. It is being used for some flights to get stranded foreigners out of the country, but it has no commercial facilities and can only handle about 40 flights a day compared with Suvarnabhumi’s 700. They’ve had to bring in porta-potties so the crowds can relive themselves.
Passengers are checking in at one of the hotels in town, the Centara Grand, and are being bussed to their flights. They have to check in at least five hours before their flight. THAI Airways, as you can see, is making an effort to make the experience a little less painful, by providing some entertainment for the crowds. A story in The Nation also told about how THAI employees are pitching in to help with the chaos at the hotel check-in area, with flight attendants comforting passengers and employees’ mothers making food for the ticketing agents, who can barely leave their posts.
Tawn had to laugh when he saw the picture in the papger. “That’s very Thai,” he said. And it is true. It says so much about Thai culture. First, to their credit, the Thais are very gracious hosts. They try to make every experience pleasant and so by trying to entertain their guests and show some beauty, they are making the best out of an improbably difficult situation.
The flip side to that, the one that can make non-Thais jai rone (hot headed), is the sense that in a completely out-of-control situation, effort is being expended on some window dressing rather than actual solutions.
I’m an optimist, though, so I see things through the first point-of-view.
That said, Boon and David had to fight a chaotic crowd to get out on a flight at U-Tapao yesterday, Markus had to take a 10-hour van ride to Phuket to catch a special Lufthansa charter to Frankfurt, Anthony and Francis are still uncertain if they’ll be able to leave this evening on their re-scheduled flight, Brian is still stuck in Hong Kong and Ken is stuck in Chicago, both unable to return, and I personally know of at least eight people who have cancelled trips here.
Tawn and I agreed that if the airport is still shut down on December 18th when we are scheduled to fly to the US, that we’ll change out ticket to one-way out of the country.