Saturday, November 29, 2008

'Leave immediately'

Nov 28, 2008
Crisis in Thailand

LATEST: Thai police warn protestors at Don Mueang to leave immediately or face 'necessary measures'.

BANGKOK - THAI police on Friday ordered protesters to immediately leave one of Bangkok's besieged airports, as anti-government leaders rejected last-ditch attempts to negotiate an end to the crisis.

A police officer at the domestic Don Mueang airport, which was seized late on Wednesday, read out an order to demonstrators a day after Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat declared a state of emergency.

'All protesters must... leave the rally site otherwise law enforcement officers will carry out appropriate and necessary measures to solve the situation,' the order said.

As fears of bloody clashes escalated, the founder of the protest movement rejected a personal plea from the premier to hold talks to end the occupation of Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi international airport.

'Today the prime minister contacted me on the telephone to negotiate. There are no talks,' Mr Sondhi Limthongkul told supporters at Don Mueang, insisting that he was not afraid of a police crackdown.

The founder of Thailand's anti-government protest movement said he had rejected a personal plea from the prime minister to hold talks on the siege of Bangkok?s airports.

Mr Limthongkul, who set up the People's Alliance for Democracy said demonstrators would not leave until premier Somchai Wongsawat resigned, adding that the PM should 'seek asylum in Myanmar'.

'The government has asked to negotiate - that means the government is defeated,' he said.

'I ask Prime Minister Somchai to seek asylum in Myanmar within 24 to 48 hours.'

Mr Somchai sacked his national police chief on Friday, a day after declaring a state of emergency and ordering police to handle protesters besieging Bangkok's main airports.

General Patcharawat Wongsuwan, who was moved to an inactive post, had resisted previous orders to crackdown on the street protesters who began a 'final battle' to unseat the government on Monday, Thai media reported.

'The removal was the result of his performance during this current crisis,' government spokesman Nattawut Saikuar told NBT television a day after Mr Somchai declared a state of emergency to end the crippling airport sieges.

'The transfer is because of suitability and in line with the situation. The prime minister considered how he (Gen Patcharawat) handled the current situation,' said Mr Saikuar.

'There were many reasons taken into consideration.'

According to a government statment released, Mr Somchai has appointed Police Major General Prateep Tanprasert, the inspector general, as acting national police chief.

Dozens of riot police with truncheons and shields have gathered at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport after talks with anti-government protesters apparently failed to end a crippling blockade.

A Reuters correspondent saw 100 police set up a perimetre at the airport headquarters building, about 300 metres from where the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protesters had besieged the main terminal.

Earlier, police said they hoped talks with protest leaders would end the siege, but warned they would 'take other steps' if they failed.

'We are asking them to allow the airport to resume operations,' Lieutenant-General Suchart Muenkaew, the chief police negotiator, told reporters.

'We will keep talking, but if it fails we will take other steps. The last step will be to disperse them.'

Thailand's premier said earlier on Friday that talks are under way to persuade anti-government protesters to leave Bangkok's main airports before a potentially bloody crackdown.

Demonstrators stormed Suvarnabhumi international airport on Tuesday and blockaded domestic Don Mueang airport early on Thursday in the latest twist to their months-long attempts to unseat the government.

Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat declared emergency rule at both airports late on Thursday, but a day later he said that officials were negotiating with the activists.

'The government does not want to trigger any violence or casualties, so to implement the law under international practice, as of now negotiations are under way,' Mr Somchai told reporters in the northern city of Chiang Mai.

'I am not setting a deadline but I have instructed officials to carry this out according to the plan. Therefore it's up to the officials,' he said.

Bangkok Metropolitan Police commander Lieutenant General Suchart Mueankaeo said the prime minister had instructed to handle the situation with care and to avoid a clash with protesters.

'Initially police will negotiate and we have talked with them on the telephone, but we have not yet made a precise appointment,' said Gen Suchart, who has been tasked with dispersing protesters from Don Mueang.

He said police will now go to the rally site and explain to protesters that their acts violate the law.

With tensions running high between the government and the military, the army has already said it is opposed to the use of force to drive protesters from the airports.

Clashes between police and demonstrators in central Bangkok on October 7 left two people dead and around 500 wounded in the deadliest such incident in Thailand for 16 years.

In a televised address from the government stronghold of Chiang Mai, 700 km north of Bangkok, Mr Somchai said the export- and tourism-driven economy could not tolerate further disruption.

'I need to do something to restore peace and order,' he said.

A similar declaration in September aimed at dislodging protesters occupying Government House was ignored by the army.

The airport sit-ins have forced hundreds of flights to be cancelled, stranding thousands of foreign tourists in one of Asia's biggest air hubs and grounding millions of dollars of air cargo.

Protesters vowed on Friday to 'fight to the death,' as police said they would negotiate with the demonstrators before trying to evict them under emergency laws. 'We are not afraid. We will fight to the death, we will not surrender and we are ready,' one of the main protest leaders, Somsak Kosaisuk, told a crowd of supporters at the domestic Don Mueang airport.

Another protest leader, Suriyasai Katasila said, 'We will not leave. We will use human shields against the police if they try to disperse us.'

PAD guards had set up roadblocks on the main expressway to the airport and were stopping all cars and checking passengers and trunk compartments.

The roadblocks were manned by youths in black jackets, faces partly covered by masks. Some wore body armour and wielded wooden stakes and golf clubs.

A government spokesman said the economy could lose at least 100 billion baht (S$4.2 billion) if the sieges drag on for a month, and GDP growth for the year could be cut to 4 per cent from a current estimate of 4.5 per cent, already a seven-year low.

A University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce survey forecast revenue losses of between 76 billion baht and 120 billion baht in the sector if the chaos continues for another month.

Final battle
Thailand's three-year-old political crisis has deepened dramatically since the PAD began a 'final battle' on Monday to unseat a government it accuses of being a pawn of former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 coup. Mr Somchai is Thaksin's brother-in-law.

Pressure has built on the army to step in since Mr Somchai rejected military calls to quit, but pro-government forces threaten to take up arms if the elected administration is ousted, raising fears of major civil unrest.

Army chief Anupong has repeatedly said he would not take over, arguing the military is powerless to heal fundamental political rifts between the Bangkok elite and middle classes who despise Thaksin, and the poor rural and urban majority who love him.

But rumours of the army preparing to launch what would be Thailand's 19th coup or attempted coup in 76 years of on-off democracy continue to swirl around the capital.

The government offered to shuttle thousands of stranded tourists by bus to U-Tapao, a Vietnam War-era naval airbase 150km east of Bangkok, as an alternative landing site for airlines.

Aviation Department chief Chaisak Angkasuwan said 20 regional airbases in Thailand were available as alternatives. -- REUTERS, AFP

[Comment: What democracy is there when after two elections, and pro-Thaksin politicians are elected again and again, the anti-Thaksin just refuse to take no as an answer. The properly elected Thai Govt has bend over backwards to not confront these protesters and that only seem to have harden their resolve and feed the illusion that what they are doing is right. The military and the police are also confused about their roles. But now the protesters have effectively blockaded the city but closing both airports, disrupted trade and business for all the other Thais, inconvenienced innocent travellers for their own selfish political purpose, and jeapardised the livelihood of many other Thais who depend on trade and tourism for their income. Democracy also means accepting that your choice is the choice of most other people. It is not democracy to say, we're going to have elections after elections, until our man wins. Or else we'll bring this country to its knees. That's blackmail.]

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