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November 27, 2008

Thailand Political Stalemate:
PM rejects army chief call to step down, dissolve parliament

A call by Thailand's powerful army commander to end the country's deepening political crisis was rebuffed Wednesday, as the prime minister rejected his suggestion to step down, and protesters refused to end their occupation of the country's main airport, reported the Associated Press.

Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat justified his stance saying he came to power through elections and has "a job to protect democracy for the people of Thailand." He spoke from the northern city of Chiang Mai, a stronghold of government supporters.

His rejection of Army Gen Anupong Paochinda's plan seemed to put him on a collision course with the military although the general has said he would not launch a coup.

In a televised press conference, Paochinda said, "the government should give the public a chance to decide in a fresh election." However, he insisted he was not pressuring the government and ruled out staging a coup.

"We have considered every option including a coup, but it will not resolve the problem," he said. Government supporters have said they would forcefully resist a military takeover.

Suriyasai Katasila, a spokesman for the protesters, said the group would not abide by the army chief's plea to leave the country's international airport or other occupied government facilities "If the government does not quit, we will not quit," he said.

As the deadlock continued, political violence spread Wednesday to Chiang Mai, where government supporters attacked a radio station aligned with the protesters. Separately, there were unconfirmed reports that one man was killed and several people assaulted in an attack on the city's local airport.

However, it was the occupation of the international Suvarnabhumi Airport, just outside the capital Bangkok, that put the world on notice of the turmoil that has reduced Thailand to a dysfunctional nation.

European Union and Britain's Foreign Office both issued statements of concern about the political situation.

Thousands of travelers were stranded in Bangkok when members of the alliance swarmed the airport Tuesday night, forcing a halt to virtually all outgoing flights.

Several thousands passengers were bused to city hotels Wednesday to await developments, but many other passengers spent a second night at the airport after a day of behind-the-scenes negotiations failed. All flights have been suspended until further notice.

Late Wednesday night, in response to a petition by the state airport operator, Bangkok's Civil Court issued an injunction ordering the demonstrators to immediately leave Suvarnabhumi Airport.

The protesters have ignored similar orders, but the document provides a legal basis for security forces to remove them.

Airport director Serirat Prasutanont, who had tried to negotiate with the protesters to allow passengers to fly out, said the takeover "damaged Thailand's reputation and its economy beyond repair."

Tourist income during the high season - from late October to February - could slump to about half the expected $6.8 billion, said Kongkrit Hiranyakit, head of the Tourism Council of Thailand.

The airport, the 18th-busiest in the world, handled over 40 million passengers in 2007.

Protesters were also occupying late Wednesday the passenger terminal at the older and smaller Don Muang airport, which appeared to effectively cut off civilian aviation services to the Thai capital.

The protest alliance accuses Somchai of acting as the puppet for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a September 2006 military coup after being accused of corruption and abuse of power. Thaksin is in exile, a fugitive from a conviction for violating a conflict of interest law. Somchai is Thaksin's brother-in-law.

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