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Thai government, protesters reject army's plan

General's call for an end to crisis falls short

By Chris Blake and Ambika Ahuja
Associated Press / November 27, 2008
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BANGKOK - A call by Thailand's powerful army commander to end the country's deepening political crisis was rebuffed yesterday, as the prime minister rejected his suggestion to step down, and protesters refused to end their occupation of the country's main airport.

Early today, Thai authorities closed a second airport after protesters stormed the terminal.

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 General 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.

The anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy insisted it would continue its airport occupation and other protest activities until Somchai resigns. It rejected the general's proposal for new elections, pushing instead for the appointment of a temporary government.

As the deadlock continued, political violence spread yesterday 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 yesterday 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.

Some travelers took the inconvenience in stride.

"It's really horrible to be delayed and I'm missing my friend and things, but the local people have given us food, offered us drinks, and the airport's actually quite a nice place at the moment," said Andy Du Bois-Barclay, an English traveler .

Protesters were also occupying late yesterday 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.

PAD, as the protest alliance is known, launched its current campaign on Aug. 26 with a failed attempt to take over a government television station, after which they stormed the grounds of the prime minister's office, which they continue to use as their stronghold.

They prepared for their "final showdown" Sunday in an almost festive atmosphere at their Government House stronghold. Even as they pushed through police lines Monday to blockade parliament and the temporary government office at Don Muang airport, crowds remained relaxed as police yielded to them.

The situation soured Tuesday, with scattered violence between political rivals in different parts of Bangkok. At one point, government supporters threw rocks at a truckload of alliance members, who shot back with pistols and then chased and beat their attackers.

Skirmishes continued in several spots Tuesday night and yesterday, leaving more than a dozen people hurt.

"It is no secret that the PAD are armed with guns, bombs, knives, and wooden batons. They constantly break the law with impunity," said Ji Ungpakorn, an associate professor of political science at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

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