Thailand to negotiate with airport protesters

November 27, 2008 6:38:01 PM PST
Thailand's government backed off Friday from its threat to forcibly remove protesters occupying Bangkok's two airports in their campaign to oust the prime minister, saying police would avoid violence and attempt to negotiate. Thousands of tourists have been left stranded since anti-government protesters occupied the main international Suvarnabhumi airport on Tuesday and the smaller Don Muang airport on Wednesday. Both airports are now shut down and the capital completely cut off to air traffic.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat declared a state of emergency at the airports, authorizing police to take back the terminals. The order appeared to indicate that a crackdown was imminent against the members of the People's Alliance for Democracy.

But eight hours later, Government spokesman Nattawut Sai-Kau told The Associated Press that police have been instructed to get the protesters out of airports "as soon as possible" in a "peaceful manner."

"Firstly, the police should open negotiation with the protester. If they refuse to go, police should do whatever is necessary to open the airports on the basis of nonviolence," he said.

The new soft line, and the government's failure to send in security forces so far, has raised doubts about whether Somchai has the support of security forces and the army, a powerful institution that has traditionally played a key role in the country's politics.

Army commander Gen. Anupong Paochinda has so far been neutral in the political turmoil, and even suggested that Somchai call new elections, triggering speculation that a military coup could take place.The whispers were further fueled by press reports Thursday of tank movements that the military later said were only a training exercise.

In an address to the nation Thursday night to announce the emergency, Somchai said that navy and air force personnel would help the police, but was vague about any participation by the army, saying only the government would also ask the army "to help take care of the people."

The state of emergency also empowers the government to suspend some civil liberties, including restricting the movement of people and prohibiting mass assembly.

Emergency was declared once before in the three months since the protesters seized the prime minister's office, but there was no move to take advantage of its provisions, apparently because the army was reluctant to take on the alliance, which at the time enjoyed greater popularity.

The protesters remained defiant on Friday.

"We are ready to defend ourselves against any government's operations to get us out of those places," Parnthep Wongpuapan, a spokesman of the People's Alliance for Democracy, told the AP.

"We are going to stay at the airports until Somchai resigns," he said.

Protesters at the international airport donned goggles and helmets, and first aid stations handed out surgical masks in anticipation of a police raid. The group's "guards" were patrolling the area with slingshots and metal batons. Many also carry concealed handguns.

Speakers from a makeshift stage repeatedly yelled: "Are you scared?" The crowd roared back: "We're not scared!"

They alliance's protest grew out of its hatred of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a brother-in-law of Somchai. Thaksin was ousted in a bloodless military coup in September 2006 after months of protests by the alliance.

It accused Thaksin and his allies of corruption and abuse of power. Thaksin is in exile, a fugitive from a conviction for violating a conflict of interest law. The group says Somchai is merely a Thaksin puppet and should go.

However, Somchai has stood his ground, saying his departure would be a blow to democracy.

In his televised address Thursday from the northern city of Chiang Mai, Somchai accused the alliance of "holding the country hostage and the public hostage." Somchai has been in the pro-government stronghold since he returned from a summit in Peru on Wednesday.

The protests, which gathered pace three months ago when demonstrators overran the prime minister's offices, have paralyzed the government, battered the stock market, spooked foreign investors and dealt a serious blow to the tourism industry.

"If the government uses an emergency decree and decides to crack down on protesters, the army may decide to intervene to prevent that," said Panithan Wattanayagorn, a political science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

Until now, Somchai has not tried to forcibly oust protesters from his office compound and urged police to exercise restraint during the group's forays outside the walls. Still, at least six people have been killed thus far in political violence.