Thailand’s simmering political troubles finally came to a boil over the weekend. Late on Sunday night, the Thai army moved in, removing barricades set up by agitators at key intersections. Given the rumour-hungry mood of the capital, this was taken as evidence of one of three things: normalcy was returning; a confrontation between the agitators and the army was imminent; or even that a military coup was possible.
On Saturday, demonstrators forced the cancellation of the ASEAN summit in the beach resort of Pattaya. And on Sunday, as agitators ransacked the offices at the interior ministry and attacked a limousine that they mistakenly believed was carrying the Prime Minister, the government declared a full-scale state of emergency in the capital city of Bangkok.
Indian commerce minister Kamal Nath, who was attending the ASEAN summit in place of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was informed at noon on Saturday that the Thai government no longer felt able to guarantee the safety of visiting dignatories. Nath was evacuated by helicopter from the roof of the luxurious Royal Cliff hotel where the summit was scheduled to be held and took an Indian Air Force flight back to Delhi at 4 pm that day.
Other dignatories were also evacuated as mobs burst through police cordons and entered the lobby of the Royal Cliff.
On Sunday, the trouble spread to Bangkok. Demonstrators attacked the interior ministry, going from office to office, ransacking filing cabinets and desks, looking for the Prime Minister. A motorcade which the demonstrators believed contained the Prime Minister was attacked and the windows of a ministerial limousine smashed.
Government offices all over Bangkok were targeted. In the tourist area of Ploenchit, the demonstrators congregated outside the police headquarters before heading for the upmarket malls of Siam Square.
Three of Bangkok’s most famous malls -— Siam Centre, Siam Paragon and Siam Discover — were hurriedly evacuated even as police struggled to contain the demonstration. But the agitators managed to capture a military armoured vehicle and posed for TV cameras, dancing on its roof.
The weekend’s demonstrations are the latest episode in the long-running battle between former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, and the government.
Last year, when Thaksin’s nominees were in power, opposition demonstrators occupied the Prime Minister’s office and shut down Bangkok airport, demanding the resignation of the government.
When a court ruled against Thaksin’s nominees, that government resigned and a new one composed of Thaksin’s enemies took office. Since then, Thaksin had adopted the same tactics once employed by his opponents to bring down the new government.
Whether Thaksin will succeed or not is far from clear. He remains in exile, avoiding Thailand, where a jail sentence for fraud is outstanding against him. But Thaksin still remains a popular figure in rural Thailand and would probably win a free election were one to be held.
Despite the disturbances, tourists were hardly affected. A record number of Indians are in Thailand for the Easter weekend, which coincides with the Thai festival of Songkran. None of them seems to have been harmed.
Moreover, the demonstrators seem astonishingly pro-Indian. In Pattaya, the crowds recognised the Indian military attaché (a Sikh) and cheered him on singing Bollywood tunes and praising India as “world’s largest democracy” even as they set about destroying the summit.
Nor do other tourists seem to have been affected. On Sunday night, a full-scale party was in progress on the streets of Bangkok’s Silom area as people danced on the road and sprayed passers-by with water (a Songkran ritual).
After so many months of instability, the Thais are taking the current disturbances in their stride.