Organizers of the prolonged raid on the Bangkok international airport have insisted that they will bring down the government at any cost. In targeting the airport they have taken a dramatic strategic step and have also made a move of enormous symbolic importance.
Suvarnabhumi Airport represents modern Thailand. The new airport was a huge project aimed not only at cementing the country’s commercial place in Asia but also at demonstrating how far it has come by comparison to most of its immediate neighbors.
Under normal circumstances, legions of security personnel would have protected the terminal, accompanied by the dire warnings of senior officers about anyone thinking to damage national prestige with funny business that might upset foreign tourists and businesspeople. Under normal circumstances, the police would have quickly moved to prevent or end any seizure, just as they did when protests occurred on government premises against the interim military regime last year.
But these are not normal circumstances. Crowds have already spent months occupying Government House, defying court orders to vacate, as well as one attempt to forcibly dislodge them. Now they are seemingly also at liberty to camp out in Thailand’s showpiece airport, with the expectancy that another military putsch will bump both them and the incumbent government out.
All these events speak to the complex interests that are at work behind and through the cynically named People’s Alliance for Democracy.
The alliance has been operating an armed and dangerous security force with impunity (see photo above), yet its leaders have over the last few months moved around freely, apparently without fear that any of Thailand’s quarter-of-a-million police officers will make an arrest. They have refused investigators access to crime scenes in premises that they have occupied. They have illegally detained other citizens, and have declined to negotiate for the return of public utilities and facilities. Yet they have been permitted to carry on.
Although both the alliance and its nemesis, the ousted Thai Rak Thai government, share contempt for democratic life, the contrasts between them in many respects could not be sharper. Whereas the former prime minister and his party twisted the electoral process for personal and political advantage, the people behind the current events are inimical to electoral politics.
Whereas the former government played with institutions to obtain its objectives, this group is hell bent upon laying waste to them. Whereas the Thaksin regime had some image of the future, the alliance leaders conceive of their country only with reference to an imagined past.
The irony is that while the alliance has emerged as the greatest threat to Thailand’s institutional order in modern times, it is a threat that is coming not from without but from within that order. While other countries are concerned with the danger of terrorist attack or political violence orchestrated against the state from outside, it is the super-conservative elements at the heart of the state that are responsible for the havoc being wreaked in Bangkok today.
Irrespective of what happens next, all Thailand’s core institutions have without exception suffered losses. Globally, their credibility has plummeted. It will not easily be recovered.
Domestically, they have lost authority. This loss is grievous and lasting. Active and engaged public life depends upon durable institutions. Where government and non-government agencies alike are working reasonably well, spaces exist to propose improvements, defend rights and redress wrongs. Where reactionary forces cut them down for fear of losing their status and out of misguided ideas about lineage and tradition, social life gets much more basic, much more ugly.
Thailand’s political parties and politicians have proven incapable of leading their country out of this morass. Its senior courts have encouraged conflict at the behest of interested parties, out of political rather than legal imperatives. The police force has again shown itself to be a tool of vested interests rather than a criminal justice agency of any sort. And the army too has once again demonstrated that it acts for its interests, and its interests alone.
The “final battle” unfolding in Bangkok can only end in a Pyrrhic victory. The attack on Suvarnabhumi Airport has struck at the authority and credibility of all institutions in Thailand. Whatever happens, the damage has been done. The 2006 coup pushed Thailand to the brink. The airport takeover has decidedly pushed it over.
See also: Watershed moment for democracy and rule of law (AHRC)