Protesters force Thailand to cancel Asia summit
PATTAYA, Thailand -- Thailand evacuated Asian leaders by helicopter after hundreds of anti-government protesters stormed into their summit site Saturday, forcing the country's embattled prime minister to cancel the meeting.
The latest fiasco in Thailand's political crisis increased the threat of violence and a possible military crackdown.
More than 1,000 demonstrators broke through a wall of unarmed soldiers, smashed through the convention center's glass doors and ran through the building, blowing horns, waving Thai flags and shouting demands for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to resign.
They declared victory after Abhisit was forced to cancel the 16-country summit, where leaders of regional powers China, Japan and India, and the U.N. secretary-general and president of the World Bank planned to discuss the global financial crisis.
Abhisit later denounced the protesters on national television as the "enemies of Thailand."
The country's political tension has simmered since former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was removed by a military coup in 2006. Thaksin opponents marched last year to remove Thaksin's allies from power, even shutting down the country's main international airport for about a week in November. After a court ordered the removal of the previous government, Abhisit was appointed by Parliament in December -- sparking Thaksin supporters to take to the streets.
Their numbers grew to 100,000 in the capital, Bangkok, last week, and some in Pattaya smashed the window of a vehicle carrying the prime minister, who was unharmed.
Seizing the international spotlight of the East Asia Summit this weekend, protesters converged on the seaside city of Pattaya to push for Abhisit's resignation -- seeking to embarrass him in front of other Asian leaders.
"We have won. We have stopped them from holding a summit," Jakrapob Penkair, a protest leader, said in Bangkok. "But we have not achieved our goal yet. We will continue to protest in Bangkok until Abhisit resigns."
Abhisit imposed a state of emergency after the summit was overrun, but revoked it six hours later after regional leaders were safely airlifted to a nearby military airport.
The ongoing protests could prompt the military to intervene -- a high possibility in a country that has experienced 18 military coups since the 1930s.
"The situation has gotten completely out of hand. Violence and bloodshed is very much possible" if Abhisit does not resign or dissolve Parliament, said Charnvit Kasetsiri, a historian and former rector of Bangkok's Thammasat University. "If the government cannot control the situation, military intervention is not out of the question."
The incident raises questions about the government's ability to enforce law and order. Despite the presence of hundreds of soldiers in riot gear, the protesters met little resistance as they approached the summit venue. Government supporters believe elements within the police are sympathetic to the protesters, partly because Thaksin was himself an officer.
"Deep down, some government and military leaders also suspect some police have sympathy for Thaksin," said Thitinan Pongsidhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
"No one seems to be in charge within the establishment, the government and the military," Charnvit said.
Tens of thousands of the Thaksin supporters continue to ring Government House, the prime minister's office. They say Abhsit took power illegitimately and want fresh elections. They also accuse the country's elite -- the military, judiciary and other unelected officials -- of undermining democracy by interfering in politics.
The anti-government protests have already spread to rural provinces, where Thaksin remains popular due to his social welfare policies such as cheap health care.
"Right now, there are two possibilities -- either a crackdown on the protesters or Abhisit dissolves Parliament," said Charnvit. "The situation has been pushed forward to a dead end."
A tense-looking Abhisit, speaking on national television, promised to restore the country to "peace and stability" as soon as possible.
"That would be my only goal," he said.