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Protesters storm Bangkok airport

Thailand's army rules out another military coup as demonstrators seek whereabouts of the government which has gone into hiding.

Anti-government protesters gather on the street during a protest at Suvarnabhumi international airport, in Bangkok on Nov 25 2008.
Anti-government protesters gather on the street during a protest at Suvarnabhumi international airport, in Bangkok on Nov 25 2008.

BANGKOK // Thailand's political crisis is expected to deteriorate with the government going into hiding to escape thousands of protesters. The demonstrators have begun to gather at Thailand's main international airport in an effort to prevent Somchai Wongsawat, the prime minister, from arriving from abroad. The political impasse has increased pressure on the army chief to intervene, though he continues to insist that it is not an option. Thousands of anti-government protesters, who forced a postponement of parliament on Monday, are waging a guerrilla war against the government, seeking the whereabouts of the ministers who are meeting in secret in the capital to plan their strategy for the coming days. "The government is working normally," Nattawut Saikaur, the government's deputy spokesman, told The National, but declined to reveal the location of the cabinet to prevent its being targeted by the protesters. "The cabinet meeting has been rescheduled for Wednesday afternoon after the prime minister arrives back from Lima," he said. All day, thousands of yellow-clad demonstrators, led by the umbrella group the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), have fanned out through the city in what its leaders describe as the final showdown with the government. They surrounded the government's temporary administrative base at Bangkok's old airport, Don Muang, on the outskirts of the city. The threatened nationwide strike of government workers petered out, with no major disruption to air, road or rail services. The state sector union bosses had called for industrial action to force the government to resign. Protesters have also targeted the main airport, Suvarnabhumi, threatening to prevent Mr Somchai from returning to Bangkok from Peru, where he attended the Apec summit. Hundreds of protesters have arrived at the airport, according to witnesses. He is scheduled to arrive early this morning. "The government may be in hiding, but they are beating the PAD strategically," said Kavi Chongkittavorn, the senior political editor of The Nation, an daily English-language newspaper. "The attempt to seize the airport is a mistake. This can only backfire badly on them," he predicted in an interview. Financial analysts believe that any major disruption to the airport will have an adverse affect on tourism and international investment in Thailand. The tourist industry has suffered badly since the political crisis erupted three months ago, with a more than 50 per cent fall in arrivals. Now the international economic crisis and credit crunch has also begun to affect Thailand as well, with several foreign companies announcing significant job cuts in the past week, so any disruption to international flights will certainly further deter tourists from travelling to Bangkok. The PAD protesters have been camped out at Government House since they seized it in August, demanding that the prime minister and his cabinet resign. They accuse Mr Somchai of being a proxy for his brother-in-law, the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, whom the military overthrew by in Sept 2006 for alleged corruption and abuse of power. He is in self-imposed exile abroad. Mr Thaksin also stirred up the political tension this week, by vowing he would return to politics in Thailand - even though he is currently barred from political activity - in an interview with a UAE-based magazine. He said he could fix the turmoil that had brought Thailand to a virtual standstill. But the anti-government protesters are incensed by Mr Thaksin's claims. "It is time to make a clear-cut choice between good and evil, between those who are loyal and traitors," a senior PAD leader, Somsak Kosaisuk, told supporters. Thailand's political future is in limbo, with few real options. The army chief has consistently ruled out another military coup and reiterated the army's stance today. "The armed forces have agreed that a coup cannot solve our country's problems and we will try to weather the current situation and pass this critical time," army chief Gen Anupong Paojinda told reporters after a meeting of the military's other top brass. The military will use all its resources to prevent any clashes, but the situation must be resolved using existing law, he said. Many analysts believe the judiciary may now be the only way out of the crisis. The constitutional court is expected to accept the electoral commission's submission that the ruling People's Power Party (PPP) and three of its coalition partners should be disbanded for electoral fraud in last December's election. Their decision is expected soon, but when they make their ruling, under the new constitution, the judges can also set up a Supreme Council to govern the country until fresh elections elect a new government. "It's a stalemate - everyone waiting for the other to make the first move. Will Mr Somchai dissolve parliament before the court ruling?" Mr Kavi said. "Fresh elections are inevitable - it's just a question of whether the government calls them or there is a judicial coup - which is favoured by the opposition - at least in the streets." ljagan@thenational.ae