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November 26, 2008 | by  | in Online Only | [ssba]

Kiwi Connection: Backhouse in Bangkok

Salient correspondent Matthew Backhouse witnessed part of the protest at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport, which saw the airport closed to outgoing flights and several people wounded in a clash between anti- and pro-government demonstrators. He writes of the frustration amongst fellow tourists who are being kept in the dark about what is unfolding several kilometres away.

It started with a simple announcement over the airliner’s PA system. The flight attendant casually intoned that protesters were swarming over the airport and security staff had subsequently blocked off the terminal’s top level. Passengers were advised to leave the airport from the lower levels for their own safety.

At first, nothing at the airport seemed out of the ordinary. There were no panicky individuals or raised voices – just the usual bustle of international jet-setters and bored bureaucrats. I personally wasn’t concerned about the demonstration. Sure, it seemed an unusual venue for a protest, but I was more worried about finding my hotel’s shuttle service and avoiding the taxi hawkers jostling for my bags. I waited outside on the lowest level, sucking deeply on a rollie in the oppressive South-East Asian heat. Young Thai dandies with emo haircuts and tight black jeans sauntered past; security guards stood around idly, chatting, the tasers at their belts completely nonthreatening. If there were any signs of a heavy police presence – machine-guns, riot gear, gas masks – then I didn’t notice them. If anything, the guards seemed to be enjoying the din of the demonstration three levels up; they were tapping their feet to folk-rock protest songs, with not a hint of anxiety playing across their faces.

Speeches, applause, yellow-banner waving – it seemed like a celebratory affair. There was no way I could have known that just minutes after leaving the airport hundreds of demonstrators would storm the building, coming to blows with the police. They would bring the airport to its knees, much like the parliamentary offices weeks earlier, in protest against corrupt Thai Premier Somchai Wongsawat, who is due to arrive back in Bangkok from the APEC summit in Peru today.

I only realised the gravity of the situation last night at the hotel. Tourists huddled around laptops, talking in broken English about canceled flights, speculating over when the airport might re-open, calling home. At 3am, I too received confirmation that my flight had been canceled; I was stranded in Thailand with hardly a dollar to my name. After several frantic calls home, I had more money on my credit card and credit on my phone, but little idea of what was going on. I got two hours sleep, ordered an omelette, called the airline to no avail, and tried to get in touch with the New Zealand embassy.

Inside, I was panicking, but the Queen’s Garden Resort – little more than an airport stopover, and entirely lacking any form of garden – seemed eerily calm. It allayed my fears that other tourists were in the same boat, too. One, a Canadian backpacker with cherubic cheeks and masses of brunette hair, was on the brink of tears as she explained that she would miss her flight to Hanoi, Vietnam. An aging Dutch couple I spoke to seemed far more relaxed, relishing the thought of a few more days in Asia before flying back to Amsterdam. And yet, for all this normalcy, the drama is still unfolding only 7km away. The army has been called in, and the Australian embassy is warning of the possibility of terror attacks. As I write, the New Zealand Consul to Thailand is at the airport, checking up on the situation. I can call his cellphone at any time if I need to, but I won’t right now – the four Kiwis still trapped in the terminal need him more. I can only imagine their fear, and the fear of their families back home.

The airline’s phone is still engaged. Nobody knows when the airport will reopen. It could be days before I can leave. Too scared and too broke to hit the tourist spots – terror targets, the Aussies say – I’ve confined myself to my room, wishing I had whiskey, chain smoking like there’s no tomorrow. I had planned to go to the airport to scope it out, but thinking about exchanges of gunfire, I decided against it. Best to find a bar to ride this out.


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Comments (10)

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  1. Jesus. Critic has a good background piece on this, if anyone’s curious:

    Take care, Matt.

  2. James Lawson says:

    Want some money for a drink dude?

  3. Simon backhouse says:

    This could be the start of a lustrious career as a war correspondent, though I’d rather you were reporting it by choice rather than necessity. Hope it clears up soon, and your holiday travels can continue. Keep us posted and take care!

  4. Shella R says:

    Hi – Is Pattaya affected?

  5. Trig Palin says:

    Jeez that’s heavy as fuck.

  6. Wee Hamish says:

    “… the Queen’s Garden Resort – little more than an airport stopover, and entirely lacking any form of garden.”

    I seriously hope you plan on suing after this.

    Also, this is one of the more intense things I’ve read on here. Take care, man.

  7. Ras & Barb says:

    Not a good start to a holiday eh! Good practice for your journalistic skills though – very well written. Hope you get to Hanoi soon!

  8. Wayne Sendles says:

    Read the Herald today and hoped you had already left Thailand. Great article in Salient. Hope you get to the Vietnamese border unscathed. Did not see you as a war corespondent-but a well written article. Good luck getting through to Hanoi. Glad you have been there before and know what to expect.

  9. Dennis and Rae says:

    Hi ya Matt

    Take care, hope the overland bus trip works out ok. It is scarry in situations like that, glad you were slightly removed prior to the trouble Great opportunity to practice journalist skills. Congrats on Wtgn course. You certainly started your vacation with an adventure, but no fun. Opportunity is knocking I think, always accentuate the positive.

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