SCOTT SIMON, host:
In Thailand today, anti-government protesters stormed the venue of an Asian summit meeting at a beach resort south of Bangkok.
(Soundbite of protest)
SIMON: They forced the Thai government to cancel the summit and evacuate some of the world leaders who had assembled there by helicopter. The protesters are calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who came to power just four months(ph) ago.
The prime minister had declared a state of emergency in and around the city of Pattaya. Joined now by NPR's Southeast Asia correspondent Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. Michael, thanks for being with us.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Hi, Scott.
SIMON: And a huge embarrassment for a country which just hasn't seemed to be able to buy political stability for a few months.
SULLIVAN: Yeah, a huge embarrassment, and they've been planning this thing for months and they decided to move it from Bangkok to prevent something like this from happening. They mobilized thousands of security personnel to hedge their bet, but in the end none of it worked.
And we had this extraordinary sight today of hundreds, maybe thousands, of these red-shirted demonstrators streaming through the conference center unhindered. And I have to say, the Oxford-educated Abhisit, who's normally very smooth, looked a bit rattled. He looked a bit shaken afterwards, when he went on Thai TV to announce a state of emergency in Pattaya and the cancellation of the summit.
Not a good day, Scott, for the prime minister, and not a good day for Thailand on the world stage.
SIMON: What do the protesters want? Why, for example, do they wear red shirts? What does that signify?
SULLIVAN: It signifies their support for the deposed prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. He was removed by the Thai military in 2006. The protesters want the current prime minister, Abhisit, gone. They want him to step down, they want new elections to be held. They claim he came to power illegitimately after a government made up of the former prime minister's allies was forced from power in December.
SIMON: So these are not the same people representing the same interests whose protests closed the airports last year?
SULLIVAN: No, no. The people who closed the airport represent the other extreme in Thailand - deeply polarized political scene. They were supporters, or members of the so-called People's Alliance for Democracy. I don't know if you remember, but they occupied the prime minister's office for a couple of months last year, then went after the airports in a successful effort to force what was then a Thaksin-friendly government from office with the connivance, Thaksin supporters claim, of the military and the courts.
SIMON: And where is the former prime minister, Thaksin, and can you give us any feeling for his involvement or lack thereof?
SULLIVAN: He's in exile. He was convicted last year on corruption charges. He was sentenced to two years in prison, but he's clearly orchestrating things by remote control here. And he remains hugely popular among Thailand's rural and urban poor, who make up the majority here, Scott. And that's because they say he delivered for them while in office. And as much as they love him, that's how much the other side hates him; the PAD, the middle and upper classes, the traditional political elite, the military, the monarchists.
But Thaksin, he's kept his hand in. He appeared via videophone this week at some of the opposition rallies. He's kept the pot stirring and today I think it was soup.
SIMON: Michael, being based there in Thailand, give us your best feeling for what you see over the horizon in the next few weeks.
SULLIVAN: I think it's impossible to tell. I mean, Prime Minister Abhisit's government took a hit today. They badly miscalculated the level of support for Thaksin, who just won't go away. But whether the prime minister will be forced to step down, we don't know. But we do know that this just isn't good for Thailand's image or its economy.
I mean, the airport closures gutted the tourism industry back in December at the beginning of the high season. And tourism officials are already saying this is going to be just as bad. I don't think anybody knows where this is going next.
SIMON: NPR's Michael Sullivan from Bangkok. Thanks very much.
SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Scott.