Thai protesters reinforce besieged airports

December 1, 2008 4:50:53 AM PST
Protesters trying to force the prime minister's resignation brought in thousands of reinforcements to occupy Bangkok's two besieged airports Monday, extending the political paralysis that has stranded 300,000 travelers. Since the protesters seized the airport last Tuesday, all commercial flights have been suspended in and out of Bangkok. The protests, which come at the height of the tourist season, also halted vital postal air services and the arrival of everything from specialized medicines to raw fish for Bangkok's Japanese restaurants.

The tactic apparently has been viewed as a success: The People's Alliance for Democracy shifted focus and told its members occupying the prime minister's office compound for the last three months to leave and join their compatriots at the airports. Following the call, the number swelled to about 6,000 people at the two airports.

Neither the army nor Thailand's revered king has stepped in to resolve the crisis - or offered the firm backing that Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat has sought.

Somchai, meanwhile, has been forced to govern from Chiang Mai, hundreds of miles away in northern Thailand, and has resorted to issuing futile pleas for the protests to end.

The protesters came by buses and cars, arriving unhindered at the airports. Police on Sunday removed the main checkpoint set up to block them, after it was overrun by an earlier group.

Airlines, meanwhile, were flying dozens of empty planes out of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi international airport.

Some 30 planes flew out starting Sunday and an additional 50 were to be moved later Monday, some to protest-free airports elsewhere in Thailand so that stranded tourists, businesspeople and others can leave, said Serirat Prasutanont, acting director of the Airports Authority of Thailand.

He said the airport will remain closed at least until Wednesday, renewing a shutdown that has been repeated every 48 hours.

Explosions on Sunday targeting the anti-government protesters injured at least 51 people, officials said, with blasts hitting the prime minister's compound, known as the Government House, and a road near the occupied domestic airport. No one claimed responsibility for the blasts, but the alliance blamed the government.

The Government House, which has been occupied since Aug. 26, has been attacked several times with grenades fired by unidentified assailants.

To avoid more injuries, alliance leader Chamlong Srimuang called on protesters to move out of the prime minister's compound "to the airports to support our people there." By dusk, only a couple of hundreds remained.

The move did not represent a softening of the protest group's stance, and the occupation of the compound was not entirely over as the alliance planned to leave guards behind.

"We are not abandoning the site. We will end the siege at all sites at the same time," Suriyasai Katasila, an alliance spokesman, said.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has intervened to resolve several political crises over the past four decades, is scheduled to deliver a much-anticipated speech on Thursday, the eve of his 81st birthday. But whether he will actually move to resolve the paralyzing situation is uncertain.

The Constitutional Court also is to rule soon on whether three parties in the governing coalition, including Somchai's People's Power Party, committed electoral fraud. Closing arguments from the defendants will be heard Tuesday.

If found guilty, the parties would be dissolved immediately and executive members including Somchai could be barred from politics for five years. Whether this would satisfy the anti-government protesters is uncertain.

The Foreign Ministry on Tuesday planned to propose postponing the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, scheduled for mid-December in Thailand, ministry spokesman Thani Thongpakdee said.

The alliance says it will not give up until Somchai resigns, accusing him of being a puppet of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the alliance's original target. Thaksin, who is Somchai's brother-in-law, was deposed in a 2006 military coup and has fled the country to escape corruption charges.

Kongrit Hiranyakit, head of the Tourism Council of Thailand, said over 300,000 travelers were stranded in Thailand, with 35,000 to 45,000 being added to that number each day the airports remain closed. Thousands of others trying to enter Thailand from around the world are also in a holding pattern.

Stranded travelers are driving hundreds of kilometers (miles) to other airports such as Chiang Mai in the north and Phuket in the south to leave the country.

One such journey ended in death. A Hong Kong man traveling by car to Phuket was killed in a car crash early Monday, Hong Kong's Security Bureau said. His wife was injured.

The Australian Embassy was evacuating its citizens from Phuket.

France chartered an aircraft to help its stranded nationals get home. The flight will arrive Tuesday and depart the following day, with priority given to "the most urgent situations," its Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Thailand's government has alleged that the protesters are trying to spark anarchy so the military will feel compelled to take over the country.

But the army, which overthrew Thaksin and has a history of previous coups, says it has no plans to oust the current prime minister. Still, it has failed to back up Somchai's efforts to restore order.

The supporters of the alliance are largely middle-class citizens who say Thailand's electoral system is susceptible to vote-buying and argue that the rural majority - the Thaksin camp's political base - is not sophisticated enough to cast ballots responsibly.

They have proposed discarding direct elections of lawmakers in favor of appointing most legislators, fostering resentment among rural voters.

The divisions have slipped into deadly violence. So far, six people have been killed in bomb attacks, clashes with police and street battles between government opponents and supporters.