[About this blog] Inspired by local soccer player Mike Lim during my rookie reporter days at Singapore Polytechnic, I set up this blog in August 2002. I feel that blogging is a novel platform to document interesting facets of my life and my thoughts on certain issues. [Email blogger] ephraim@singnet.com.sg

Sunday, April 12, 2009

[Aborted Summit in Pattaya]
As our convoy travelled from Pattaya to U-Tapao Airforce Base at about 4pm on Saturday for our flight home , it was as if nothing had happened. Apart from litter outside the hotel, there was not a red shirt in sight. Everywhere there were signboards welcoming leaders from ASEAN and the wider region with their national flags fluttering in the wind.

But in fact huge damage had been done to ASEAN and to Thailand. For the second time, an ASEAN Summit had to be postponed because of demonstrations. This time leaders were already in Pattaya or arriving. Except for Indonesian President SBY who arrived late and could not leave U-Tapao, the other ASEAN leaders were staying at the Royal Cliff Beach Resort. The leaders of China, Japan and Korea were at the Dusit Thani unable to join us at the conference centre. Australia's PM Rudd was in the air and flew back. The NZ PM was probably in Bangkok. UNSG Ban Ki-moon stayed on in Vientiene. Others like the heads of the World Bank, IMF, UNCTAD and ADB also had their travel plans disrupted.

We sympathised with Thai PM Abhisit and knew that he had no choice but to cancel the Summit meetings. The alternative was violence which he was determined to avoid especially when so many leaders were in Thailand as guests of the government.

It is unclear how the red shirts were able to break through the cordoned areas. The reason for the Summit meetings being held in Pattaya and not in Bangkok was precisely so that the conference area could be properly secured. Up till Friday evening, all seemed well. Then on Saturday morning, we learned that the Chinese PM could not get through. We were then told that the meetings would be rescheduled to the afternoon and evening. Having arrived at the restaurant for lunch early, I was waiting for other ministers when hundreds of soldiers with plastic shields streamed in on the far side of the swimming pool. I decided to go out to take some pictures. I was assured that the soldiers were only having a lunch break. Only later did I find out that the red shirts had broken through the gates and were moving in to occupy the conference centre nearby.

Halfway during lunch with the other ministers, we were informed that the Summit meetings had been cancelled. Within a few minutes, our security officers instructed us to leave the table immediately and go back to our hotel rooms. We could hear loud commotions. Along the way, India's Commerce Minister Kamal Nath, an old friend, called me. We greeted each other but delayed no further because the security people were getting anxious. We hurried to the next building and were bundled off into the hotel lifts as the shouts got nearer.

Up on the 12th floor, I could see the red shirts milling around the conference centre, moving hither thither. Soldiers and policemen stood in groups not really engaging them. Not long afterwards, I could hear helicopters whirring overhead picking up people from the rooftop. Out at sea, naval ships on patrol moved closer to shore and small boats also picked up passengers.

PM was told by the Thai Government that he and the Singapore delegation should evacuate by sea, to be ferried by small boats to a nearby LST which would take us to Sattahip naval base. From there we could drive to U-Tapao. It all seemed quite unseemly to me that leaders and ministers had to leave in this way. But anyway we packed our belongings and waited for instructions since the Thais were responsible for our security. Happily we were informed around 3.30pm that the demonstrators had dispersed and we could travel by road to U-Tapao with full dignity.

The situation appeared unreal or surreal to me. While all the hubbub was taking place, Caucasian tourists continued sunbathing behaving as if nothing was happening. On the beach, I could see swimmers, sailing boats and windsurfers. In my mind, I did not really believe that there was imminent danger. The immediate objective of the leaders of the red shirts was to disrupt the Summit which they had already achieved. I didn't think they would turn on us in an indiscriminate way as foreign leaders and ministers were not their targets. In any case, every delegation had armed protection. But one could never be sure. Incidents could always happen and agents provocateur might be working to foment violence. The last thing we wanted was to be caught in a crossfire.

When we arrived at U-Tapao, PM Abhisit was there to send off PM Lee and other leaders. China's PM Wen Jiabao was about to take his leave. President Arroyo and PM Thein Sein had arrived there earlier by helicopter.

As we boarded the RSAF Fokker transport aircraft, it all seemed like a bad dream. But for the Thais, the nightmare continues.

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