Images of Thai protesters camping in Thailand's brand-spanking new airport as dumbfounded foreign tourists bemoan their fortunes are being beamed around the globe thanks to the wonders of modern communications technology. If disrupting the Thai political economy was their objective, they've certainly done the business by hitting it where it hurts. The "Land of Smiles" is quite dependent on tourism for its economic well-being, with various estimates pegging its contribution to Thai GDP between 7% and 12%. Thai tourist arrivals have already been hurt by the credit crunch; this disruption near the peak of the tourist season as Westerners seek escape to warmer climes cannot be a welcome development.
The recent Prime Ministers of Thailand since Thaksin's removal have been, to say the least, a colorful bunch. Prior to the current PM, a TV chef with loyalties to Thaksin, Samak Sundaravej was selected by the People Power Party (PPP). The PPP is formed of remnants of Thaksin's now-defunct Thai Rak Thai party. After protesters claimed Samak as a political scalp, the PPP chose a decidedly non-appeasing tactic by selecting as the new PM, er, Thaksin's brother-in-law, Somchai Wongsawat. As you'd expect, rather than calm those calling for an extirpation of Thaksinite influences in Thai politics, this further inflamed their passions. The current airport siege is the culmination of these events. It sounds like a "professional wrestling" plotline, but it's true--to the detriment of many Thais' well-being.
Interestingly, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), mostly composed of Bangkok urbanites in contrast to the PPP's rural base, had already used this airport raiding strategy against Samak, besieging the airport in popular tourist destination Phuket in August. This time around, they're merely going from shutting down Thailand's second largest to its largest airport.
Going back further in time, there are parallels here to Japanese Marxists shutting down airports during the 60s. Yes, protesters were active even in Japan. Back then, it was over the Japanese government wanting to sign security treaties with the United States, potentially involving Japan in Vietnam and other Yankee misadventures. Roving street battles, attempts to shut down major airports, accusations of Western lackeydom etc.--the template was set then by the zengakuren and its ilk, or the All-Japan Federation of Student Self Government Associations. Of course, the current batch of Thai protesters are decidedly bourgeois, but the tactics are largely similar.
It is difficult to find a clear protagonist in this situation. The Thaksinite forces won the popular mandate by winning parliamentary elections in 2007. All the same, instead of being conciliatory, they have chosen PMs who are decidedly unacceptable to the opposition: Thaksin's brother-in-law as PM? It's a surefire recipe for continued trouble. OTOH, the PAD's efforts are akin to cutting off one's nose to spite your face. Further endangering Thailand's already faltering tourist industry by this action is a questionable move. Moreover, electoral politics in Southeast Asia (in the countries that have them) seem to have degenerated into a pattern of holding Philippine-style "people's power" protests to remove popularly selected governments. Why even bother with elections and just let people duke it out in the streets every so often? The result will largely be the same as what's happening now.
PS: History buffs will recall that the yakuza was eventually enlisted by the government to put down the zengakuren. It worked. At the height of the Cold War, enlisting the help of gangsters was probably a more palatable alternative to empowering Marxists even of the flower power variety.