Thai mob sends world leaders scrambling


PATTAYA, Thailand — Members of a movement hell-bent on toppling Thailand’s government crashed a gathering of world leaders, rioting in the streets and sending prime ministers fleeing by helicopter.

Protesters clad in crimson shirts stormed an opulent beach resort where the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — a 10-country network — met Saturday with six other Pacific nations’ leaders.

As the protesters crashed through the hotel’s two-story glass facade, raining glass on the lobby’s tile floor, helicopters began airlifting leaders from Vietnam, Myanmar and the Philippines from the roof. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, as well as Japan’s premier and South Korea’s president, reportedly escaped from a separate hotel and fled via motorcade to a small airport.

The protesters, who call themselves “red shirts,” succeeded in humiliating Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. During an emergency broadcast on Thai television, he called the protesters “enemies of the state” and scorned them for harming Thailand’s image.

But this nightmare in Pattaya — a typically rollicking resort town 97 miles from Bangkok — also has once again exposed the frailty of Thailand’s police and military.

Just four months ago, a different protest faction effortlessly sieged Bangkok’s main airport and held it for eight days. Likewise, protesters in Pattaya pushed through police barricades with relative ease. Most police were armed only with riot shields. When a handful of protesters reached the wing housing world leaders, they were at last driven back by armed security forces, according to Thai media reports. It is unclear whether those forces were Thai or the world leaders' own security.

United Nation Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, set to arrive Sunday, has cancelled his trip. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was en route to the meeting, but diverted his plane and returned to Australia.

The summit siege was cryptically forewarned during rallies in Bangkok that continue to drag on.

The red shirts, formally called the “United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship” in English, are affectionately described as “have-nots” by their leaders. Many have roots in Thailand’s poor, northeastern rice-farming region and feel embittered toward powerful Bangkok aristocrats.

“These have-nots, this is the first time they feel they have the power to demand something,” said Jakrapob Penkair, one of the faction’s leaders.

The red shirts have occupied the prime minister’s compound for more than a week — summoning about 100,000 people on April 8. The faction has also sporadically blocked some of the capital’s busiest roads, further jamming Bangkok’s notoriously congested traffic.

They are cheered on by ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a 2006 military coup, and who is currently fleeing corruption charges abroad. His red-shirted followers have crowded around projector screens at rally sites to see Thaksin’s video speeches beamed in by satellite.

This campaign is a revenge movement of sorts against Thai leaders who, Thaksin claims, engineered the coup.

In a startling breach of convention, the faction has now turned its anger toward the chief advisor to Thailand’s beloved monarch. Thaksin accuses Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda, a member of His Majesty the King’s privy council, of helping instigate the coup.

Attacking someone so close to the monarch is taboo in Thailand, where insults to the royal family can bring 15-year prison terms. Red shirt figureheads, while rallying against the privy council leadership, have been careful to praise His Majesty the King in the same breath.

“We want the royal family to exist coupled with our society until the end of time, right?” said red shirt leader Adisorn Piengket, speaking to a massive crowd at the premier’s occupied compound. “We have a saying, ‘The King can do no wrong.’ What we don’t want is the saying, ‘The Prem can do no wrong.’”

Protesters describe their campaign in revolutionary terms, and vow to shake up the aristocracy for the future of Thailand. “I kind of know we’ll lose this fight,” said Nuttanun Puntuwong, a 30-year-old business owner. “The people who are really behind everything, they’re too powerful. But if we lose, we’ll lose with honor.”

The mayhem in Pattaya kicked off after promises from Jakrapob to “ratchet the protests up a notch” if the Thai premier refused to resign.

Red shirts rushed the Royal Cliff Beach Hotel after a bizarre street melee that police were unable to tame. Warned that protesters would surround the resort come morning, about 200 men dressed in blue shirts — a previously unused hue in Thailand’s palette of color politics — camped out nearby with clubs and sticks.

The “blue shirts” offered little insight into their background, but announced their allegiance to Prem and their duty to guard world leaders from the approaching mob. The two groups clashed in a brief but wild street fight near the resort.

The masked men lobbed glass bottles at protesters, followed by some sort of smoke bomb that sent clouds of bright green smoke billowing over the combatants. A string of explosions — possibly fireworks or homemade bombs — sounded during the fight and the blue shirts, outnumbered, fled.

The red shirts later overran the resort as soldiers idled outside. Claiming victory after the summit’s collapse, many protesters have returned to Bangkok to regroup at the premier’s compound, where Thaksin has again phoned in to cheer them on.

"It's up to the leaders to instruct us,” said Nuttanun, the business owner. “If they want us to push on, we'll push on. If they want us to go home, we'll go home."

Pailin Wedel contributed to this report from Pattaya.

Read more about Thailand's politics:

Fair and balanced in Bangkok? No.

For Which It Stands: Thailand