Thai protesters tighten grip on airport

Thai protesters prepared to end their three-month occupation of the prime minister’s office on Monday to consolidate their grip on the main airport ahead of a court verdict that could dissolve the elected government.

Leaders of the anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) said they would invite neutral observers into the Government House compound, which they overran in late August, prior to a hoped-for handover later on Tuesday.

“We want to show the authorities that the damage wasn’t 100 million to 200 million baht [$5,6-million] as claimed by the government,” PAD spokesperson Suriyasai Katasila said.

“If everybody is happy, we may hold a returning ceremony tomorrow.”

PAD supporters streamed from the central Bangkok site to Suvarnabhumi airport, suggesting it is merely shifting its focus rather than giving up.

The Government House site was hit by several grenades in the past two weeks, killing one and wounding dozens.

The yellow-shirted demonstrators are trying to topple Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, whom they accuse of being a pawn for his brother-in-law, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup and is now in exile.

Somchai insisted again he would not go. “I will not quit and I will not dissolve parliament,” he told reporters in the northern city of Chiang Mai.

Forecasts for an economy already suffering from the global financial crisis are grim.

Finance Minister Suchart Thada-Thamrongvech said on Monday the economy might be flat next year, or grow by just 1% to 2%, after earlier growth forecasts of between 4% and 5%.

Thailand’s Board of Trade director said the cost of the airport closures was “incalculable”, but a senior board member offered a figure, saying lost export earnings ran at around three billion baht ($85-million) a day.

The air-cargo industry has ground to a halt, while the city’s main domestic hub, Don Muang, has also been occupied for five days.

Rating agency S&P cut Thailand’s outlook to negative from stable, saying there was a possibility of widespread violence.

The chaos has worried Thailand’s neighbours, due to meet in the country in two weeks for a regional summit. At their Tuesday meeting the Thai Cabinet is expected to approve a delay to March.

Earlier Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said Jakarta had offered to hold the foreign ministers’ meeting of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations because of the political crisis in Thailand.

Security, computer systems compromised
The general manager of Suvarnabhumi said it could take a week to resume operations when the protesters finally leave, because security and computer systems have been compromised.

“Normally, checking the IT systems takes one week,” Serirat Prasutanond said, adding the delay would be even longer if any of the airport’s systems needed repair.

Somchai has been in the north of the country since returning from an overseas trip last week but is supposed to attend a ceremony in Bangkok on Tuesday to mark the king’s birthday.

Also on Tuesday comes the end of a vote fraud case that could deliver a crippling blow to the six-party coalition government.

The Constitutional Court has moved with uncharacteristic speed to wrap up the case and is expected to order the disbanding of Somchai’s People Power Party (PPP) and two coalition partners.

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

The PPP’s dissolution, however, will not necessarily mean a snap election as many MPs will simply switch to a new “shell” party.

The stakes have risen with thousands of government supporters now also rallying in the capital, the first show of strength by the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD) in a week.

DAAD leader Veera Musikapong has denounced the court case as a “concealed coup” and government supporters have threatened to take to the streets if the ruling goes against Somchai.

There was some cheer on Monday for the tens of thousands of tourists affected by the airport closures when PAD officials said they would allow 88 aircraft stuck at Suvarnabhumi to leave.

They will be able to pick up passengers from airports outside Bangkok.

The government is providing free hotel rooms and meals for those stranded, but dealing with the estimated 100 000 people affected is proving a logistical nightmare and many are falling through the net.

“We are so tired. When can we go?” 25-year-old Iranian Ali Golbabaei said at Suvarnabhumi, recounting his real-life version of Hollywood movie The Terminal, the hit 2004 movie about a traveller stuck in New York’s JFK airport.

Golbabaei said he and two friends were told accommodation vouchers had run out, and they had no money left after holidaying in the beach resort town of Pattaya.

“Nobody is helping us. We are the last tourists in this airport,” he said as his friends slept on the floor. - Reuters