Thai protesters smashed their way into a major Asian summit yesterday, forcing the country’s embattled prime minister to cancel the meeting and evacuate foreign leaders by helicopter.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared a state of emergency in the beach resort of Pattaya after thousands of demonstrators stormed the summit, which was supposed to focus on the financial crisis and North Korea’s rocket launch.
Choppers plucked dignitaries from the roof of the luxury hotel venue after the red-shirted supporters of ousted former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra breached police lines, broke down glass doors and streamed into the building unopposed.
The collapse of the summit piles more pressure on British-born Abhisit, who has pledged that his four-month-old government will heal years of political turmoil since Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup.
“The government has a duty to take care of the leaders, who will depart from Thailand,” Abhisit said in a somber nationwide address broadcast live across all Thai television channels.
The meeting — the biggest international gathering since the G20 summit in London earlier this month — grouped the 10-member ASEAN with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.
Protesters said they had run out of patience with Abhisit’s refusal to bow to their demands for his resignation and that they were angry at the wounding of several supporters in earlier clashes with pro-government rivals.
Honking horns and triumphantly chanting slogans, anti-government protesters decked out in red pushed past lines of troops who carried shields and batons, but offered little resistance.
They toppled metal detectors, smashed reception tables and left behind small pools of blood where some had been injured by glass.
About 100 demonstrators got as far as the driveway of an adjacent building where ASEAN leaders were holding a lunch meeting to thrash out a new schedule for the talks, after protest blockades had scrapped the morning’s itinerary.
Hotel staff quickly cleared the restaurants and hustled bikini-clad tourists out of the pool as the protesters staged a sit-in rally at the heart of the summit, blocked by security forces with flak jackets and shotguns.
Within minutes of the cancelation, several foreign leaders, including Philippine President Gloria Arroyo and Abhisit himself, were airlifted to a nearby military airbase where emergency planes were on standby.
The demonstrators soon dispersed and within hours all the visiting leaders had been evacuated. Abhisit made a surprise return to the summit venue late yesterday to say the state of emergency had been lifted.
Political commentator Thitinan Pongsudhirak said the protest movement had seriously undermined Abhisit’s troubled administration and showed there was no end in sight to months of political drama.
“Their goal is to make the government unable to function — I think they have certainly done that today,” said the analyst from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.