Thailand premier refuses to resign

November 27, 2008|By Paul Watson and Charles McDermid | Paul Watson and Charles McDermid,Los Angeles Times

BANGKOK, Thailand - 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.

Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat says his government will keep functioning despite demands by the army chief and demonstrators that he call new elections to resolve the political crisis.

"I reassure the people that this government, which is legitimate and came from elections, will keep functioning until the end," Somchai said in a nationally televised speech yesterday.

He spoke after landing in northern Thailand on a flight from Peru, where he had been attending a summit of leaders from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. While he was out of the country, thousands of protesters broke through police lines Tuesday night and seized Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport, a busy regional hub.

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

Some of the People's Alliance for Democracy demonstrators were armed with golf clubs, metal rods and sticks. Others handed out food to tourists, many of whom spent the night trying to sleep on the floor.

"This is a farce," said Tony Beck, 39, of Liverpool, England. "I can't say this is going to do much for Thai tourism." After forcing authorities to close the country's busiest airport late Tuesday, the protesters occupied the abandoned control tower.

Hours before the prime minister spoke to the nation, army chief Gen. Anupong Paochinda told reporters that Somchai should dissolve parliament and hold new elections. The general's position apparently strengthened the resolve of protesters, whose leaders repeated that they would not leave the main airport until Somchai resigns.

Insisting his call for elections did not amount to a coup, the army chief also said protesters should leave the Suvarnabhumi airport. The demonstration there has stranded about 3,000 travelers and an unknown number at Don Muang airport.

"The government still has full authority," the general said at a news conference after meeting with officials from the military and police, along with academics and business leaders. "If a coup could end all the troubles, I would do it," he said.

By seizing the airports, including two-year-old Suvarnabhumi Airport, which handles about 40 million passengers a year, the demonstrators have put a virtual stranglehold on the country's crucial tourism industry.

The siege is causing so much damage to Thailand's economy that it must be resolved "within days, not weeks," Suchit Bunbongkarn, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, said from Bangkok.

"There are more than 10,000 protesters, and it's not very easy for anybody to clear them out," he said. "Damage would be done to the airport, let alone the lives of the people there."

The alliance draws its main support from Thailand's cities and says Somchai is a corrupt puppet of his brother-in-law, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted as prime minister by a bloodless coup in 2006.

"The best solution is probably for the government to resign first and then we have to do something else later," Suchit said. "I would say, at the moment, the government hasn't been functioning at all."

The National Assembly voted Somchai into office in September after the Constitutional Court ruled that Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej had to resign because he had violated conflict-of-interest laws by appearing as a guest host on two televised cooking shows while in office.

Tourism is Thailand's top source of foreign exchange, earning it $16 billion a year. Its biggest airline, Thai Airways, said Tuesday that it expected to lose $14 million a day because of flight cancellations.

The tourism industry has suffered two sharp declines in the past six years, first during the 2002-2003 SARS crisis, when the virulent spread of potentially deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome scared off many travelers.

Then the Indian Ocean tsunami struck in 2004, devastating some of Thailand's most popular resort areas during the peak Christmas season. The tsunami claimed more than 220,000 lives, 5,400 of them in Thailand.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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