Protesters shut Thailand’s international airport


BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — Protesters commandeering Thailand’s main airport forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights and stranded thousands of travelers Wednesday as they escalated their 4-month-old campaign to oust the prime minister.


The bold takeover — carried out while Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat was attending the Asia-Pacific summit in Peru — stranded 4,000 travelers and raised the stakes in a standoff that has seen a spike in violence in recent days and has given the tourism-dependent country a massive black eye.

Airport director Serirat Prasutanont said authorities were trying to negotiate with the protesters to allow stranded passengers to fly out.


“The incident has damaged Thailand’s reputation and its economy beyond repair,” he said.

The protesters appeared intent on forcing the military to intervene and bring down the elected regime. Army commander Gen. Anupong Paochinda has repeatedly ruled out a coup, though he


has also said the army “will keep peace and order to protect the public and uphold important institutions like the monarchy.”


Street clashes between supporters and opponents of the government Tuesday included the first open use of firearms by the anti-government protesters. Police said 11 government supporters were injured, some with gunshot wounds.


Early Wednesday, assailants threw four explosives at anti-government protesters, including one targeting a group about a half-mile (1 kilometer) from the airport.

A second was tossed into a crowd of supporters gathered at the domestic Don Muang airport, injuring three others, police said. Two other explosives were thrown in Bangkok but no one was injured.


In addition to travelers seeking to fly into the world’s 18th-busiest airport, about 4,000 people were stranded in Suvarnabhumi Airport’s white, sail-like terminals, where they sprawled across suitcases, luggage carts and even security conveyor belts in largely unsuccessful attempts to sleep. The airport averages 700 flights a day and handled over 40 million passengers in 2007.

Protesters, dressed in yellow, the royal color, walked around distributing food, ham sandwiches and packets of rice.

“We’d rather they just go home so we can go home,” said Kay Spitler, 58, from Glendale, Arizona.

Cheryl Turner, 63, of Scottsdale, Arizona, needed to get home to cook a Thanksgiving holiday feast for her family Thursday. She had asked neighbors to pull a turkey from her freezer a day ahead of time.

“My turkey is sitting in the sink at home,” she said.

Shortly after noon Wednesday, an annoucnement over the loudspeaker informed passengers that a free shuttle and hotels would be provided to all passengers, with an update on flight information expected later in the day.

Hundreds of passengers were ushered down stairs and escalators to waiting buses.

Demonstrators — some masked and armed with metal rods — had swarmed the international airport overnight, breaking through police lines and spilling into the passenger terminal.

Group Capt. Chokchai Saranon, a control tower official, said 50 masked protesters armed with metal rods demanded to enter the control tower Wednesday, seeking the prime minister’s flight schedule. Three were allowed in, but with flights canceled, there were no controllers to provide the information and the protesters eventually left. In any case, Somchai was to land later Wednesday at a separate, military airport.

Twenty flights were diverted to Bangkok’s Don Muang airport, the former international airport that now normally handles domestic traffic, and a dozen others were rerouted to U Taphao military airport about 190 kilometers (118 miles) east of Bangkok, as well as to Hong Kong and Singapore airports, airport officials said.

The People’s Alliance for Democracy has been trying to topple Somchai, accusing him of being the puppet of a disgraced fugitive predecessor, billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra. The alliance said protesters would keep the airport closed until Somchai quits.

The alliance has staged a number of dramatic actions in recent months. It took over the prime minister’s office in late August and twice blockaded Parliament — one time setting off street battles with police that left two people dead and hundreds injured.

Support for the alliance has been waning, and the group appeared to be edging toward bigger confrontations — involving fewer though more aggressive followers — to create chaos.

“Now, they are openly creating instability and provoking a military coup,” said Thitinan Pongsidhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

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.

“We don’t have an estimate of financial loss, but it is greatly damaging,” said Vijit Naranong, honorary chairman of Tourism Council of Thailand.

An Australian couple was stranded at the airport since following a two-week honeymoon on the resort island of Phuket.

“Our main concern is to get the first flight home and never come back,” said newlywed Robert Grieve, 32, of Melbourne, drinking a can of Heineken as he leaned against a vacated Thai Airways check-in counter.

The protesters are mostly better educated, more affluent, urban Thais demanding that the country move away from a Western-style electoral system, which they say Thaksin exploited to buy votes. They favor a system in which some representatives are chosen by certain professions and social groups.

They are vastly outnumbered by Thaksin’s supporters in the rural majority, who delivered his party two resounding election victories. Their loyalty was sealed by generous social and economic welfare programs for previously neglected areas.

The anti-government forces are well organized, and have the behind-the-scenes support of elements of the military and parties close the royal palace, the country’s most influential institution.



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