Key skips Thailand following protests

04:43, Apr 28 2009
BIG NUMBERS: Supporters of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra confront riot policemen near the venue of the 14th ASEAN Summit and Related Summits in Pattaya, Thailand.

The cancellation of the East Asian Summit was certain from the moment a red-dressed wave of protesters surged through the front doors of the Pattaya Exhibition and Conference Hall.

All morning the supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra edged gently closer to their objective - the embarrassment and humiliation of the current administration.

Like a slow wave they surged through and around a succession of ineffectual army lines, all the time chanting, blowing trumpets and clapping.

The Thai people have a well-earned reputation for courtesy and gentleness, and throughout the day they chatted to soldiers, handing them water as they wilted in the sapping heat.

The Thais are also incredibly good at organising protests.

There were red-tagged marshals guiding their demonstrators back and forth, runners taking supplies from the back to the front and "security guards" around leaders who were given surges of loud applause as they "held talks" with the seemingly impotent security force officers.


Within hours there was just a single line of soldiers between a few thousand protesters and the glass doors of the summit venue.

There was a last desperate call from the head of the army to the protest leader known as Arisman, but he said it was too late.

Moments later there was a surge from the protesters and the glass shattered with a crash, sending soldiers flying as the red wave surged through the gap and charged towards the buildings where Asian leaders are getting ready for lunch.

The army and police stood aside, allowing the protesters full control of the centre.

There was no sense of danger among the gathered media of sixteen nations.

The protesters were tightly focused; they were not there to cause damage or physically injure anyone, they were there to humiliate Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Within an hour they had their prize, the summit was cancelled and the Thais were forced to air lift out stranded leaders including the heads of China, Japan and Korea.

Other leaders, including Prime Minister John Key, didn't even make it out of Bangkok Airport.

The authorities declared an "urgent state of emergency" to restore order, but it was pointless as the protesters were gone within minutes of their victory and the soldiers were laying in the shade.

The state of emergency was lifted as quickly as it was brought down and the tourists in the resort town remained largely oblivious to the drama that had surged around them.

The Thais had been hoping that the summit would address the world economic crisis and fill the coffers of local tourism operators struggling to cope with falling visitor numbers.

Instead, the softly spoken Abhisit was left trying to explain where it all went wrong and threatening legal action against his tormentors.

Abhisit is the third Thai prime minister in just a few months and he has been seriously embarrassed. There are questions over how long he can last.

Thailand is a deeply divided country politically and there are fears that the red wave that swept through Pattaya may be yet another step towards the return of violent conflict in the mostly gentle Kingdom.


Ian Llewellyn travelled to Thailand with the assistance of the Asia New Zealand Foundation