By PHILIP GOLINGAI
FOR a man who might or might not be stranded in Seoul, Suwat Thongthanakul was sympathetic to the anti-government protesters who shut down Bangkok’s international airport.
Watching the latest report on the siege of Suvarnabhumi Airport on CNN at 10pm on Wednesday in his hotel room in the South Korean capital, he admitted that the closure was inconvenient as he was uncertain whether his Friday flight to the Thai capital would take off.
But the National Press Council of Thailand president understood why the People Alliance for Democracy (PAD) had seized Suvarnabhumi Airport on Tuesday night.
“You should not ask me what happened but why it happened,” said Suwat, who then gave a 20-minute lecture on ‘new politics’, echoing the PAD’s view that the corrupt Thai electoral system had allowed politicians to buy their way into parliament.
“The (Thai prime minister) Somchai Wongsawat government is corrupt. And this is the only way we can pressure his government to resign,” explained the editor, who travelled to Seoul to attend a journalism conference organised by the Korea Press Foundation (KPF).
But how about the damage to Thailand’s international image and to its economy especially as tourism contributes to 14% to the country’s GDP?
“You have to look at the big picture,” said Suwat, while drawing an imaginary ‘big’ circle with his finger.
“If Somchai and Thaksin remain in power, the country will be in bigger trouble.”
The PAD had alleged that billionaire politician Thaksin, who is the brother-in-law of Somchai, is the puppet master controlling the government.
“But what about the country’s image?” I reiterated while CNN was broadcasting images of frustrated passengers stranded at Suvarnabhumi, the world’s 18th busiest airport which handles about 700 flights daily.
Suwat, the editor-in-chief of Manager Weekly, a business magazine which is part of PAD co-leader Sondhi Limthongkul’s media empire, replied: “I understand the passengers’ frustration because I myself might be stranded in Seoul but this (fallout from the airport closure) will be temporary as eventually the tourists will come back.”
Thailand experienced bloodshed during the anti-government protests in 1992, 1976 and 1973 but the kingdom bounced back from those incidents, he added.
Still, the PAD’s seizure of Suvarnabhumi comes at a costly price. The closure of the airport at the beginning of Amazing Thailand’s high season could cost the tourism industry about 100 billion baht (RM10bil) for the next six months.
Another Thai journalist who is stuck in transit at Seoul’s Incheon Airport, fails to see Suwat’s “big picture”.
In an editorial in The Nation yesterday, Pravit Rojanaphruk wrote: “This is a most irresponsible action by the PAD. It’s wrong to target an airport in any civilised society.”
“It will have far-reaching consequences, not just for this writer but for thousands of Thais and foreign tourists who have been held captive,” Pravit opined.
“It will adversely affect the already suffering tourism and travel industry. Thailand’s reputation as a reliable air traffic hub and as a tourist destination has been severely tarnished.”
During Wednesday’s dinner, the airport closure was the main topic of conversation among the journalists who attended KPF’s journalism conference.
Some of them wondered how the authorities could allow the PAD to take over two airports (on Thursday, the PAD stormed Bangkok’s Don Muaeng airport).
Suwat explained that if the police used force which resulted in bloodshed the public outcry would force the government to resign.
However, by Thursday’s breakfast the Mumbai terrorists’ strike had blown Suvarnabhumi from their minds.
“Now the world has forgotten about Thailand,” a Filipino journalist told me.
“Well, not me,” I replied.
“I need to get back to Bangkok as I’ve got a potential coup story to cover and a six-week-old baby to kiss.”
That Thursday, Suwat was making plans in case the PAD was still in control of the Suvarnabhumi airport and Don Muaeng airport on Friday.
He could fly to Phnom Penh and then take a seven-hour bus back to Bangkok. Or he could remain in Seoul and incur additional expenses.
Yes, an airport closure can be inconvenient. But for Suwat, what’s a travel delay if it meant the end of a Thaksin-proxy government and the beginning of a “clean” political system.
(Published in The Star on Nov 29, 2008)
Saturday, November 29, 2008