I’ve been one of the several thousand (we think) Australians trapped in Phuket because of the protests which shut the airport. Put aside the post 9-11 Western incredulation against protestors actually making it into an airport, let alone onto the tarmac, without someone being shot. As long as you weren’t one of the tourists trapped in the airport there wasn’t too much immediate worry.

However, even though there wasn’t the same level of menace in the air as, say, East Timor before the vote, there was still an undercurrent of feeling that things weren’t too far from kicking off. All the locals were saying “it’s not a coup — but wait a day or two…”

My feeling, having covered the odd riot, was that this thing was only a tear gas canister or police baton away from turning ugly. It was enough for most people to try to get out as soon as they could — you simply couldn’t hire a car on Phuket by Sunday — they were all taken by tourists driving the 12 hours to Bangkok (despite reports that the roads had been blockaded). All of which makes the actions of Qantas and DFAT pretty hard to understand.

DFAT first.

The demonstrations had been going on for a couple of days in Bangkok, so DFAT should have had a fair idea of what was happening. So when things kicked off on the Friday, with airports in the main tourist areas being blockaded, you’d think they’d swing into action, right? After all, this is the embassy which has had to deal with a coup and a tsunami in the past couple of years. Yeah, right. Friday afternoon and the Bangkok embassy shut down for the weekend, without as much as a change to its answering machine message.

DFAT didn’t even change its travel advice on the airport closures until Sunday — just before they reopened.

Qantas was, somewhat predictably these days, worse.

Qantas’s Bangkok office was similarly closed all weekend. I had a Sunday night flight I was clearly going to miss, and was forced to call my parents in Australia to change it for me. Then with perhaps a few thousand Australians trying to get out, Qantas decides to cancel its Monday flight, bumping everyone to either a BA flight that night, or a Tuesday flight, which promises to be a zoo. Not a great performance from our flying kangaroo.

By the way — one of my best mates is a Qantas pilot and says that the aircrew are in near revolt over Geoff Dixon’s somewhat dismissive treatment (they think) of the Manila pilot who saved his plane. The thinking was that if it was a Virgin flight Branson would have had the whole crew and their families on a private island, bonuses all round etc.

Anyway, state of emergency just declared here in Bangkok. I suspect it’s going to be a long wait at the airport.

Peter Fray

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