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December 1, 2008

Thailand Political Stalemate:
Pro-government rally heightens crisis
Court to rule tomorrow on ruling party vote fraud case

Government supporters from the Thai countryside converged on the capital on Sunday in a bid to counter to rival protesters who seized control of Bangkok's two airports and forced the prime minister to run the country from afar, reported the Associated Press.

The pro-government rally was held ahead of a crucial vote fraud case that could deliver a crippling blow to the six-party coalition government as it tries to cope with the protesters.

The Constitutional Court has apparently moved faster than usual to wrap up the case on Tuesday, and it is widely expected to order the disbanding of Somchai's People Power Party (PPP) and two other coalition partners.

If it does, Somchai and other leaders would be barred from politics and many cabinet ministers would have to step down.

"It is obvious that there is interference with justice. It was well planned, and this is a concealed coup," DAAD leader Veera Musikapong told the Nation newspaper.

The chaos has worried Thailand's neighbours, who are due to meet there next month for a regional summit. Surin Pitsuwan, head of Southeast Asia's 10-nation grouping, Asean, said a postponement might be wise. Somchai was to make a decision on the summit on Tuesday.

Neither the army nor Thailand's revered king have stepped in to resolve the crisis - or offered the firm backing that Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat needs to resolve the leadership vacuum.

The problem runs deeper than the airport closures, which have stranded up to 100,000 travelers, strangled the key tourism industry and affected plane schedules worldwide. Political violence has added to the sense of drift bordering on anarchy that pervades the country's administration.

Explosions on Sunday hit the prime minister's compound, which protesters from the People's Alliance for Democracy have held since August, an anti-government television station, and a road near the main entrance to the occupied domestic airport. At least 51 people were injured, officials said.

No one claimed responsibility, but Suriyasai Katasila, a spokesman for the protest group, blamed the government.

Afterward, senior protest leader Chamlong Srimuang met with Bangkok police chief Lt. Gen. Suchart Muankaew. The two agreed to have police and protesters jointly patrol protest sites at the prime minister's office and Don Muang domestic airport.

The alliance says it will not give up until Somchai resigns, accusing him of being a puppet of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the alliance's original target. Thaksin, who is Somchai's brother-in-law, was deposed in a 2006 military coup and has fled the country to escape corruption charges.

Thousands of government supporters wearing red shirts, headbands and bandanas joined a Sunday rally against the protest alliance.

"This is a movement against anarchical force and the people behind it," government spokesman Nattawut Sai-Kua told The Associated Press. "They want anarchy so that the army is forced to intervene and stage a coup."

But the army, which overthrew Thaksin among other previous coups, says it has no plans to oust Somchai. Still, the military's failure to back up Somchai's efforts to restore order give the impression it alone will decide how the situation will be resolved.

Somchai declared a state of emergency, but security forces have so far failed to move on the protesters.

The social and political divisions have slipped into deadly violence. So far, six people have been killed in bomb attacks, clashes with police and street battles between government opponents and supporters.

Eighty-eight planes, which had been parked at Suvarnabhumi since protesters forced operations to cease, have now been allowed to leave the airport, without passengers.

Some airlines were using an airport at the U-Tapao naval base, about 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Bangkok. But authorities there were overwhelmed with hundreds of passengers cramming into the small facility, trying to get their bags scanned through a single X-ray machine.

The Federation of Thai Industries has estimated the takeover of the airports is costing the country $57 million to $85 million a day. Some of its members have suggested they might withhold taxes in protest.

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