Tourists struggle to escape as Bangkok airport blockades enter sixth day

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Suvarnabhummi Airport (also referred to as Bangkok International Airport)
Image: Heinz Albers.

With dire warnings that the number of stranded tourists in Thailand could rise as high as 300,000, thousands are attempting to leave the country via U-tapao airport in Rayong, around 150 km southeast of the capital Bangkok. The blockade of the two main international airports by People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) supporters is now in its sixth day. Tensions continue to rise with a pro-government rally planned for today and police surrounding the main international airport, Suvarnabhumi.

With the old international airport, Don Mueang, still in PAD hands, the red-shirted pro-government United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) has supporters massing at the Bangkok city hall. A "Truth Today" talk show is planned for later on, although it is unclear if the fugitive ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra will feature. Organisers have indicated there are no plans to confront the PAD, but non-specific threats to act where the government has not done so have been made in the past.

Thailand's Prime Minister remains in Chiang Mai in the north of the country, having declared a state of emergency around the two besieged airports on Friday. The announcement prompted the PAD to move protesters inside terminal buildings and post volunteer guards. Moves by police yesterday to evict the protesters failed, and their vehicles were seized as they retreated. The police presence around the airport has been stepped up as today has gone on and Navy and Air Force personnel may be made available to assist in clearing the protesters.

Adding to calls from the army for the beleaguered People's Power Party (PPP) government to resign, the Thai Chamber of Commerce labelled the administration as incompetent and called for them to step down; some Chamber of Commerce members made the suggestion that businesses should cease paying taxes if the request is ignored.

The deepening three-month old political crisis continues to have significant economic impact on Thailand. Agriculture is hard hit because the export of fresh produce via air is usually routed through the Suvarnabhumi airport. No new tourists are entering the country; many nations have advised their citizens not to travel to Bangkok, and the repercussions in the tourist industry are expected to last well into 2009. A report in The Bangkok Post suggests that as many as one million in the industry could lose their jobs. In a press conference at the Foreign Ministry, Deputy Prime Minister Olarn Chaipravat highlighted the plight of the hotel, tour, and restaurant trades - expected to be hardest hit in the wake of the crisis.

Police appear reluctant to make forceful moves to remove the protesters from the two airports, likely a consequence of their last clash with the anti-government PAD in October that saw two protesters killed and around 500 injured. Suggestions have been made that action is being deferred pending a decision by the country's constitutional court on the future of Prime Minister Somchai's PPP. The party may be outlawed this coming week in light of allegations of vote buying in the last general election. The court may face pressure from the pro-government UDD, their city hall rally is only minutes away from the court buildings. This means that they could surround the premises to protest the court moving to closing statements and a verdict on the fate of the parties in the ruling coalition.

The PAD demonstrators encamped at Government House saw another grenade attack on Saturday night. Fifty are reported injured in the attack, and separate explosions are reported at Sondhi Limthongkul's ASTV satellite TV station and the occupied Don Mueang airport.

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