Bangkok: No way out!

More than 300 Sri Lankans were left stranded when anti-government protestors in Thailand laid siege to the two international airports in the capital, for eight days. Now safely home, some of the returnees share their experiences with Dhananjani Silva

The crisis erupted on November 25. Political unrest in Thailand’s capital city of Bangkok forced the closure of the two airports - Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang as anti-government protestors from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) rioted on the streets. Their demand: that the Prime Minister of Thailand Somchai Wongsawat step down.

In the ensuing turmoil, roads in and around the airport were blocked…flights cancelled and around 240,000 passengers left stranded. Some were stuck in the airport while others were put up in hotels by the Thai authorities.

A stranded passenger rests his feet on a piece of luggage while waiting to check-in for his flight at a makeshift airline terminal in Bangkok on December 1. REUTERS

Among the stranded passengers, were 360 Sri Lankans, quite traumatized by the unexpected turn of events. Manjari Peris, President of the Jeewaka Foundation, an organization for tobacco and cancer control was stranded at the airport when she arrived in Bangkok to take part in a workshop on the day of the incident. “At the airport we wanted to change the currency, but all banks were closed. We were surprised because Svarnabumi airport, functions 24 hours. At the same time we noticed some disturbances at the airport with people shouting and running about. It was after this that we learnt about the problem,” she says adding that fortunately, after about one hour they had managed to get out of the airport and move to a hotel.

“Our constant thought was ‘when will we be able to get back to Sri Lanka’,” says Ranjan Peiris, CEO of Ranjan Motors Pvt Ltd who had travelled to Bangkok to take part in an automobile exhibition. His colleague, Sanjeewa Wickramasuriya, the proprietor of Sun Wick Trading who was also attending the same exhibition told The Sunday Times that it was not the fear of being caught up in the protests that affected them as other than the airport, the rest of the city was functioning as usual, but what was overpowering was their anxiety to return to Sri Lanka as soon as possible.

Having participated in the motor show, Ranjan’s return flight was scheduled for the 28th. When the trouble broke out, the Thai Ministry of Tourism and Sports had sent out a directive to the hotel where Ranjan was staying asking the hotel authorities to provide all tourists, food and lodging facilities free of charge and that the costs would be borne by the government.

“So we were at the hotel, day after day, just eating, talking and watching the news to see what was happening. We saw on the news, the protestors attired in yellow, in and around the airport. They never damaged anything or harmed anyone. Some were making speeches while there were others who just sat and looked on. There was also music played for the protestors,” Ranjan recalls.

“We tried every option we had. All the buses and trains were packed. Even the taxi guys were demanding exorbitant prices,” he adds. Sanjeewa says that at one point they had even considered travelling on a land route through Malaysia to get home, but in the meantime on December 1, they heard of a special flight that was being arranged to bring them back.

Ven. M. Chandrasiri Thera Ranjan Peiris Sanjeewa Wickramasuriya

Preparations for their return to Sri Lanka, equally agonizing and stressful followed thereafter. The passengers were asked to go to the exhibition centre close to the city of Bangkok for check-in purposes. Here temporary check-in counters had been set up for each airline.

“Thousands of passengers had flocked to the exhibition centre to check-in. The place was crowded; people were seated on the floor, some even sleeping on the ground. Snacks were provided for everyone and we were well looked after as it was a long stay at the centre. From there, we were then put onto a bus- there were about 500- 600 buses to transport the passengers from the location to the U-Tapao airbase where the flights were supposed to land. We were taken to this location with two Tourist Police escorts and around 11 p.m that day we left Thailand,” Ranjan and Sanjeewa said.

Hand-written boarding passes were issued to the passengers. Instead of the usual weighing equipment, their luggage was weighed on old machines, some of which were hardly functioning.
“They were not really concerned about the weight; it was done just as a formality,” they say, quite amused by the rather unusual check-in process, but immensely relieved that their long wait was over.
Ven Meegahatenne Chandrasiri Thera, Secretary General of the Sri Lanka Nippon Educational and Cultural Centre (SNECC) was returning home from Japan having participated in an annual conference on world peace, his flight being through Bangkok on the 25th.

“I wanted to stay in Bangkok that night and return the next day. So I inquired from the officials at the airport if I could transfer the boarding card for the next day (26th). This done, I was about to leave the counter when I met a Sri Lankan monk in Thailand who informed me about the anti-government protests. We went out of the airport in the hope of getting a taxi to get to the temple where he was staying but there was not a single taxi to be seen. The rioters had blocked the roads entering the airport. In the meantime we heard the shouts of the protestors who were advancing towards the airport,” the Thera said adding that there was a large number of passengers stranded at the airport at that time as both in-bound and outbound flights had been cancelled.

Temporary terminal: Sanjeewa at the exhibition centre prior to checking in

Many other Sri Lankans whom he met at the time he visited the check-in centre were facing financial difficulties as by that time they had run out of money having been forced to stay longer than they expected. The Thera who had travelled on Thai Airways also had to buy a new return ticket to return on the special flight on SriLankan Airlines, he said.

People attending weddings and funerals were held up and parents with small children faced many difficulties when they ran short of food and medicine needed for their kids - all this the Thera himself witnessed.

The week-long airport siege orchestrated by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has cost the Thai economy heavily dependent on tourism, hundreds of millions of dollars, according to latest reports. Meanwhile, with the courts barring the Prime Minister and his party from politics, a caretaker government is in charge and a shaky calm prevails.

The international airport has begun functioning again and as the last of the stranded Lankans come home, Ranjan has a heartfelt ‘thank you’ for the Sri Lankan Embassy in Thailand, which was immensely helpful in coordinating with the airlines and the Thai authorities to ensure their safe return.

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