Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Thailand shuts down second airport

Thai authorities shut down Bangkok's second airport today after it was overrun by anti-government protesters, completely cutting off the capital from air traffic as the prime minister rejected their demands to resign, deepening the country's crisis.

Thailand's powerful army commander, who has remained neutral in the conflict, stepped into the fray Wednesday, urging Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat to step down.

He also asked thousands of protesters to end their siege of the main Suvarnabhumi International Airport. It has been shut since Tuesday night, forcing the cancellation of hundreds of flights, and drawing world attention to a turmoil that has reduced Thailand to a dysfunctional nation.

The anti-government protests, which gathered pace three months ago, have paralyzed the government, battered the stock market, spooked foreign investors and dealt a serious blow to the tourism industry.

The crisis worsened early Thursday as authorities shut down the Don Muang domestic airport, which had been receiving some diverted flights from Suvarnabhumi.

Serirat Prasutanont, chief of the Thailand Airport Authority, said authorities feared protesters who stormed the Don Muang terminal late Wednesday might harm passengers and aircraft.

He said authorities might consider using the U Ta Pao air force base, 140 kilometers (90 miles) southeast of Bangkok, and were alerting airports nationwide to be ready for diverted flights.

The closure of the two airports left thousands of foreign tourists stranded, including Americans trying to get home for their Thanksgiving holiday today.

Bart Edes, a 45-year-old American banker, had planned to spend Thanksgiving with his wife at a friend's home in Manila, where he lives.

"They're going to put on a traditional feast — roast turkey, sweet potatoes, all the things you crave when you're outside of the United States," he said.

But Edes said he still had a lot to be thankful for. "Look at what happened in Mumbai. This is an inconvenience, but it could be worse."

At least 100 people were killed in the Indian city of Mumbai by a series of overnight militant attacks that reportedly targeted Americans and Britons.

The protests are being led by a loose coalition known as the People's Alliance for Democracy. It accuses Somchai of acting as the puppet for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a September 2006 military coup after being accused of corruption and abuse of power. Thaksin, who is Somchai's brother-in-law, is in exile, a fugitive from a conviction for violating a conflict of interest law.

On Wednesday, a district court ordered the alliance leaders and their supporters to immediately leave Suvarnabhumi, calling the occupation "an infringement on other individuals who have freedom of movement."

There was no sign of the protesters leaving Thursday — a reflection of their boldness amid the government's unwillingness to use force for fear of causing bloodshed.

Somchai, who was forced to land in the northern city of Chiang Mai when he returned from Peru on Wednesday, is also not budging. In a televised address to the nation, he said his government was legitimately elected and that it has "a job to protect democracy for the people of Thailand."

The statement amounted to a rejection of Army Gen. Anupong Paochinda's suggestion to quit, which seemed to put him on a collision course with the military, although the general has said he would not launch a coup.

Somsak Kosaisuk, a key protest alliance leader, said protesters stormed Don Muang airport to prevent members of Somchai's Cabinet from flying to Chiang Mai for an emergency Cabinet meeting Thursday.

The drive from Bangkok to Chiang Mai takes about eight hours.

Government spokesman Nattawut Saikau said the emergency meeting would nevertheless go ahead. "The key issue is how to deal with escalating violence in the country," he told The Associated Press.

The People's Alliance for Democracy insists it will continue its airport occupation and other protests until Somchai resigns. It also has rejected the general's proposal for elections, pushing instead for the appointment of a temporary government.

The alliance comprises mainly well-educated, affluent, urban Thais who want the country to move away from a Western-style electoral system, which they say Thaksin exploited to buy votes. They favor a system in which representatives are chosen by certain professions and social groups.

They are vastly outnumbered by Thaksin's supporters in the rural majority, who delivered his party two resounding election victories. Their loyalty was sealed by generous social and economic welfare programs for previously neglected areas.

On Thursday, the EU and the British Foreign Office expressed concern at the deteriorating situation.

"We urge all sides to this political dispute to resolve their differences peacefully and legally, respecting Thailand's democratic institutions," Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell said.

The European Union said in a statement that "any anti-constitutional attempt to interfere in the democratic process would have a negative impact on EU/Thailand relations."

As the deadlock continued, political violence spread Wednesday to Chiang Mai, where government supporters attacked a radio station aligned with the protesters. Separately, there were unconfirmed reports that one man was killed and several people assaulted in an attack on the city's local airport.

The protest alliance launched its current campaign in late August, storming the grounds of the prime minister's office, which they continue to use as their stronghold. The group has also tried twice to blockade Parliament, in one case setting off a daylong street battle with police that left two people dead and hundreds injured.



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