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November 26, 2008

Thailand Political Stalemate:
Protesters vow to block airport until govt steps down

Thailand's international airport suspended operations Wednesday after authorities failed to reach an agreement with antigovernment protesters who have blocked access to the airport and occupied its departure terminal, reported Kyodo news agency.

"We had to shut down operations temporarily after negotiations failed this morning," Serirat Prasutanon, acting director of Suvarnabhumi Airport, told reporters following overnight talks with leaders of the People's Alliance for Democracy.

"It is risky if we let flights depart since they told us that they want to stop all activity here," he said.

Thailand's new international airport was initially closed Tuesday night for security reasons after protesters blocked its entrance and entered the departure terminal.

The disruption forced the canceling of 73 flights overnight though the PAD allowed two or three flights to depart amid the negotiations.

Serirat said some 3,000 passengers, mostly foreigners, were stranded at the airport but they have since been accommodated in nearby hotels.

The protesters began blocking access to the departure terminal at Suvarnabhumi Airport on Tuesday evening, anticipating the arrival there Wednesday of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, returning from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in Peru.

Even though Interior Minister Kowit Watana said Somchai's flight will not land at Suvarnabhumi, the PAD has vowed to continue protesting there.

The developments come a day after several thousand PAD activists broke into Somchai's provisional office at Bangkok's other airport, Don Muang, used for domestic flights.

Somchai has been forced to use a building at that airport as a temporary seat of government since Government House in central Bangkok has been occupied by PAD activists since August.

In addition, several thousand anti-government protesters have also moved to block Armed Forces headquarters to prevent Somchai's Cabinet from meeting there.

Meanwhile, PAD leaders released the statement apologising to people for the inconveniences caused but vowing to continue the protest until Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat steps down.

Somchai has insisted he will not step down as his government wad democratically elected.

He has urged PAD not to act against Thailand's national interests, especially by blocking an international airport that is the country's gateway.

Thai Army Commander-in-Chief Anupong Paochinda reiterated Tuesday that the armed forces are not preparing a coup, but added they are "ready to deal with" any "unexpected situation."

The PAD activists began their antigovernment protests May 25, accusing the government of then Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej of being a political proxy of their nemesis, ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

They continued their protests even after Samak was unseated by the Constitutional Court in early September and Somchai, who is also from the Thaksin People Power party, took over as premier.

On Monday, the activists blocked access to Parliament and forced it to postpone an important joint legislative session.

The legislature rescheduled for December 8 and 9 a session to approve documents to be either signed or adopted next month in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, at summit meetings organized by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The summit meetings were originally scheduled to be held in Bangkok but were moved to Chiang Mai because of the marathon disturbances.

In a related story, the Associated Press report that support for the alliance has been waning in recent weeks, and the group appeared to be edging toward bigger confrontations - involving fewer though more aggressive followers - in hopes of creating chaos.

"Their goal is to prevent the government from functioning. They are getting increasingly desperate in their attempt to close the deal," AP quoted Thitinan Pongsidhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, as saying. "They had been losing steam and have so far failed to achieve their goal. Now, they are openly creating instability and provoking a military coup."

Political tensions have been simmering since 2006, when a similar campaign against then-Prime Minister Thaksin - accused of corruption and abuse of power - led to him being deposed by a military coup, the 18th since the absolute monarchy was abolished more than seven decades ago.

The airport blockade is a fresh blow to Thailand's $16 billion a year tourism industry, already suffering from months of political unrest and the global financial crisis. Suvarnabhumi is the world's 18th largest airport in passenger traffic, handling over 40 million passengers in 2007.

Meanwhile, opponents and supporters of the government clashed Tuesday evening as members of the alliance returned from a rally at the smaller Don Muang airport and government supporters threw rocks at their truck. Alliance members responded by firing slingshots and a half-dozen shots with two pistols from their truck, according to footage shown on Thai PBS television.

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