Thai crisis heightens as government backers rally

Thousands of government supporters rallied in Bangkok to counter antigovernment protesters. Explosions also hit the prime minister's compound yesterday. Thousands of government supporters rallied in Bangkok to counter antigovernment protesters. Explosions also hit the prime minister's compound yesterday. (Darren Whiteside/ Reuters)
By Ambika Ahuja
Associated Press / December 1, 2008
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BANGKOK - Government supporters converged on the capital yesterday, in a counter to rival protesters who seized control of Bangkok's two airports and forced the prime minister to run the country from afar.

Neither the army nor Thailand's revered king has stepped in to resolve the crisis - or offered the firm backing that Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat needs to resolve the leadership vacuum.

The problem runs deeper than the airport closures, which have stranded up to 100,000 travelers, strangled the key tourism industry, and affected plane schedules worldwide. Political violence has added to the sense of drift bordering on anarchy that pervades the country's administration.

Explosions yesterday hit the prime minister's compound, which protesters from the People's Alliance for Democracy have held since August, an antigovernment television station, and a road near the main entrance to the occupied domestic airport. At least 51 people were injured, officials said.

No one claimed responsibility, but Suriyasai Katasila, a spokesman for the protest group, blamed the government.

Afterward, senior protest leader Chamlong Srimuang met with Bangkok police chief Lieutenant General Suchart Muankaew. The two agreed to have police and protesters jointly patrol protest sites at the prime minister's office and Don Muang domestic airport.

"It was not a negotiation to end the protest. We discussed how to improve the security situation by patrolling together," Chamlong told reporters.

The alliance says it will not give up until Somchai resigns, accusing him of being a puppet of Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted prime minister and the alliance's original target. Thaksin, who is Somchai's brother-in-law, was deposed in a 2006 military coup and has fled the country to escape corruption charges.

Thousands of government supporters wearing red shirts, headbands, and bandanas joined a rally yesterday against the protest alliance.

Some danced and clapped to music blaring from loudspeakers. They have adopted red to distinguish themselves from their yellow-garbed rivals.

"This is a movement against anarchical force and the people behind it," government spokesman Nattawut Sai-Kua told the Associated Press. "They want anarchy so that the army is forced to intervene and stage a coup."

But the army, which overthrew Thaksin among other previous coups, says it has no plans to oust Somchai. Still, the military's failure to back up Somchai's efforts to restore order give the impression it alone will decide how the situation will be resolved.

Also distancing himself from the crisis has been revered 80-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who as a constitutional monarch plays no open role in politics but who has healed social fractures in the past.

"No one else can fix this. The country is so divided. The only uniting figure we have is the king. If he tells both sides to step back, they will," said 36-year-old coffee shop owner Natta Siritanond.

Nattawut, the government spokesman, denied rumors that Somchai had left the country, saying he was operating out of the northern city of Chiang Mai and traveling to Nakhon Phanom, a northeastern province 370 miles from Bangkok.

Members of People's Alliance for Democracy overran Suvarnabhumi airport, the country's main international gateway, on Tuesday.

They seized the domestic airport a day later, severing the capital from all commercial air traffic and daring the government to evict them.

Somchai declared a state of emergency, but security forces have failed to move on the protesters.

The supporters of the People's Alliance for Democracy are largely middle-class citizens who say Thailand's electoral system is susceptible to vote-buying, and argue that the rural majority in the north and the northeast, the Thaksin camp's political base, is not sophisticated enough to cast ballots responsibly.

They have proposed discarding the one-man, one-vote system in favor of appointing most legislators, fostering resentment among rural voters.

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