Thai PM declares state of emergency over airport blockades

Friday, November 28, 2008

File photo of People's Alliance for Democracy protesters.
Image: Mark Micallef.

With Thailand's People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) still blockading Bangkok's two international airports, the People's Power Party (PPP) Prime Minister, Somchai Wongsawat, has declared a state of emergency around Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi international airports. Police have been ordered to end the blockade and demonstrations, prompting the PAD to move demonstrators inside terminal buildings and post volunteer guards to fend off any action by authorities.

The staunchly royalist and anti-government protesters began upping the stakes in their campaign to bring down the populist PPP government last Sunday. A rallying call for protesters to mass at the occupied Government House compound on Sunday saw thousands ready for their Monday morning march on parliament. Since forcing the cancellation of sessions of both houses of parliament, the protesters have expanded their targets to include temporary government offices at Don Mueang, and then to close both of Bangkok's international airports.

Disruption by the PAD has now been in progress for over three months. The group which initially demonstrated in 2006 leading to a bloodless military coup to overthrow the now-fugitive ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra claims the current government is corrupt and merely a proxy for Thaksin, who remains in self-imposed exile. The current escalation of action has been dubbed their 'final battle' and although army commanders have dismissed reports that a second coup may be imminent, rumours that such may happen abound.

The PAD action is now starting to have a notable impact on Thailand's economy. Most apparent is the impact on the tourism industry with several countries advising their nationals not to fly into the country; Tuesday's invasion and closure of the new international airport saw 3,000 - 4,000 travelers stranded in terminal buildings. Normally handling around 75 flights an hour, Suvarnabhumi airport's closure is estimated to be costing the agriculture sector of the country's economy 3 billion baht (US$85 million) per day. As a major segment of the economy, the export by air of fresh fruit and vegetables is among Thailand's better known products.

Among the would-be travelers, the nearly 5,000 Thai Muslims who planned to make the annual Hajj pilgrimage are most distressed. Pridi Chueaphudee, an advisor to the leader of the country's Islamic community, has appealed for the PAD to permit pilgrims to fly out of the new international airport. According to the Bangkok Post there is concern that the blockade may send a message of religious intolerance to Saudi Arabia. Thai Airways have managed to arrange one chartered flight from Hat Yai International Airport to Jeddah, although this will only accommodate 250 of those seeking to attend the Hajj.

Meanwhile, the beleaguered Prime Minister Somchai remains in his home town of Chiang Mai in the north of the country. He was forced to divert there when returning from an APEC summit in Peru, and has set no date for his return to the capital. With concern that a coup may be in the offing, cabinet business is being conducted via video conferences with other senior government officials who are in Bangkok. He has dismissed calls from the military for the current government to be dissolved and fresh elections held.

With police apparently determined to avoid a repeat of the October 7 clashes that left two dead and around 500 injured, it may be the involvement of government supporters that tips the current crisis into violent confrontation. The pro-government United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) has called for their supporters to disperse PAD occupation of the airports should the government fail to act.