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December 6, 2008

Thailand Political Stalemate:
Crisis remains unresolved as flights get cancelled

Dancers, puppeteers and apologetic tourism officials greeted travelers as Bangkok's international airport officially reopened Friday, but frustration remained high with scores of flights canceled, reported the Associated Press.

The airport was operating about 50 percent capacity. Many airlines were unwilling to say when they would restart operations with foreign carriers concerned about security and safety.

The weeklong airport occupation by the People's Alliance for Democracy protest group, which ended Wednesday, caused the cancellation of all flights and dealt a heavy blow to the country's tourism-dependent economy. It snarled cargo flights as well, heavily hitting time-sensitive exports like cut flowers.

More than 300,000 visitors were stranded during the shutdown and clearing the backlog is expected to take days.

Serirat Prasutanont, acting director of Airports of Thailand, said 547 flights were scheduled to arrive and depart Friday at Suvarnabhumi, but most of those were Thai carriers.

"Many foreign airlines are still not ready to land," Serirat said. "They need some time to adjust their flight schedules."

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade advised travelers to "be aware of possible delays and congestion at the airports while full flight services are in the process of resuming."

Although travelers were treated like VIPs when they entered the airport, greeted by Thai dancers, smiling flight attendants offering gifts of flowers and free food, there was plenty of frustration to go around.

For many, it was simply a continuation of a confusing and tiring ordeal that began November 25 when the first of Bangkok's two airports was forced to close by anti-government group seeking the ouster of the prime minister.

Bangkok's domestic Don Muang airport, which also had been closed, reopened Thursday.

As officials attempted to normalize operations at the airport, the country's political future remained uncertain. Although street demonstrations have ceased with protesters ending their occupations of the airports and the prime minister's office, it must now be determined who will lead the country.

The protest alliance had sought to oust prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat from office because he is an ally of former Prime Minister Thaksin, whom they accuse of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect to the monarchy.

A court ruling Tuesday that Somchai's People's Power Party was guilty of fraud in last December's general election forced his immediate removal from office and the party's dissolution. But if they regroup in a new party they retain the right to name a new prime minister within 30 days, offering the possibility that another Thaksin ally would be chosen, provoking new protests.

Further complicating the matter, Thaksin's former wife, Pojaman, arrived in Bangkok Friday night from exile, despite facing a three-year jail term on a tax evasion conviction.

The couple's November divorce is widely regarded as a ploy to reduce each party's legal liability and preserve the family fortune, made in telecommunications.

There was speculation in the Thai press that Pojaman had returned to help rally Thaksin's allies in their effort to form a new government. She did not speak publicly on her return.

Thaksin is hated by many of the country's elite, who charge that he was trying to usurp royal authority.

But the country's poor and rural majority supports him because of the generous social welfare programs he instituted during his six years as prime minister.

Further unsettling the situation, the country was stunned Thursday when King Bhumibol Adulyadej failed to mark his 81st birthday with his annual address, an occasion he normally uses to provide advice on the direction of the nation.

His remarks had been eagerly anticipated this year because of sharpening social and regional divisions fostered by the militant campaign to purge the country of the influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed by a 2006 military coup. The king has historically been the country's sole unifying figure in times of crisis.

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