Airport clash grounds Thailand
The tug of war is stranding tourists and raising fears of escalating violence. The military denies rumors of an imminent coup, while the king remains silent.
A week of escalating resistance by anti-government protesters has put the Thai capital in a stranglehold that its flailing civilian government seems unable to break. The stalemate has raised fears of widespread unrest in a war of attrition between a populist ruling party and a royalist protest movement in Bangkok that is determined to rewrite the political playbook.Skip to next paragraph
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Over the weekend, protesters equipped with iron bars, shields, and slingshots rebuffed tentative efforts by riot police to cordon off the international airport seized last Wednesday. Impassioned leaders have urged their followers to be prepared to resist an armed assault. A domestic airport is also being held by the People's Alliance for Democracy, which wants Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat and his cabinet to resign over allegations of corruption and treason.
The five-day closure of the two airports has stranded tens of thousands of foreign tourists and paralyzed trade, with losses estimated at billions of dollars. Some tourists are being evacuated from a military airbase outside the capital. Thai tourism officials predict a huge short-term slump in foreign visitors that would trigger massive job losses in an already weakened economy.
On Thursday, Mr. Somchai declared a state of emergency at the two airports and authorized Thai security forces to remove the protesters. A new police chief was installed Friday. But the powerful military, which seized power two years ago during a similar crisis, has refused to take part. Army chief General Anuphong Paochinda has called on Somchai to dissolve parliament and hold elections, while denying rumors of an imminent coup.
Barring a bloody confrontation that forces the military's hand, an alternative scenario is what government supporters call a "silent coup." A constitutional court could rule as early as Tuesday on a campaign fraud case against the ruling People's Power Party and two of its partners. All face potential dissolution – the fate meted out last year to a forerunner of PPP.
A court-ordered breakup would trigger a constitutional tussle over the shape of a caretaker government ahead of new elections. PAD activists want a period of rule by their allies in military and royal circles so that a semidemocratic constitution can be imposed over the wishes of elected politicians.
In response, pro-government leaders held a mass gathering Sunday in central Bangkok to denounce military intervention and rail against the PAD, which is also occupying the prime minister's compound. In recent days, these leaders have threatened to send their supporters – known as 'red shirts' in contrast to the PAD 'yellow shirts' – to take back the airports if the police are unwilling to do the job. This raises the specter of a full-scale battle between rival camps after months of provocations and isolated clashes.