Thai Cabinet mulls emergency decree

Thai media: PM might remove the powerful army chief, Anupong Paochinda, who called Wednesday for the dissolution of Parliament and new elections.

thailand political unrest airport 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
thailand political unrest airport 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
Thailand's Cabinet, meeting outside the capital to evade anti-government demonstrators, was weighing whether to impose a state of emergency Thursday to try to end airport protests that have left thousands of travelers stranded for two straight days. Meeting with the prime minister in Chiang Mai, 350 miles (570 kilometers) north of Bangkok, the Cabinet would consider both an emergency decree or the use of a tough internal security law, government spokesman Nattawut Sai-kua said. "We have to consider these legal options to solve the crisis," he said before the afternoon meeting. There also was speculation in the Thai media that the prime minister might remove the powerful army chief, Anupong Paochinda, who called Wednesday for the dissolution of Parliament and new elections to resolve the deepening political crisis. Protesters, who are demanding the resignation of the prime minister, have occupied Bangkok's international airport since Tuesday night, forcing the cancellation of all flights. On Thursday, they also forced the domestic airport to close in a bid to prevent government ministers from getting to the cabinet meeting. Some ministers were flown on military planes from a nearby base to Chiang Mai, where Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat has been since returning from an overseas trip Wednesday night. The anti-government protests, which gathered pace three months ago, have paralyzed the government, battered the stock market, spooked foreign investors and dealt a serious blow to the tourism industry. The crisis worsened early Thursday as authorities shut down the Don Muang domestic airport, which had been receiving some diverted flights from Suvarnabhumi. Serirat Prasutanont, chief of the Thailand Airport Authority, said authorities feared protesters who stormed the Don Muang terminal late Wednesday might harm passengers and aircraft. He said authorities were alerting airports nationwide to be ready to receive diverted flights. Thai Airways said one of its flights from Los Angeles landed Thursday at U-Tapao air force base, 140 kilometers (90 miles) southeast of Bangkok. The closure of the two airports left thousands of foreign tourists stranded, including Americans trying to get home for their Thanksgiving holiday Thursday. Bart Edes, a 45-year-old American banker, had planned to spend Thanksgiving with his wife at a friend's home in Manila, where he lives. "They're going to put on a traditional feast - roast turkey, sweet potatoes, all the things you crave when you're outside of the United States," he said. But Edes said he still had a lot to be thankful for. "Look at what happened in Mumbai. This is an inconvenience, but it could be worse." At least 100 people were killed in the Indian city of Mumbai by a series of overnight militant attacks that reportedly targeted Americans and Britons. The protests are being led by a loose coalition known as the People's Alliance for Democracy. It 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, who is Somchai's brother-in-law, is in exile, a fugitive from a conviction for violating a conflict of interest law. On Wednesday, a district court ordered the alliance leaders and their supporters to immediately leave Suvarnabhumi, calling the occupation "an infringement on other individuals who have freedom of movement." There was no sign of the protesters leaving Thursday - a reflection of their boldness amid the government's unwillingness to use force for fear of causing bloodshed. Somchai, who was forced to land in Chiang Mai when he returned from Peru on Wednesday, is also not budging. In a televised address to the nation, he said his government was legitimately elected and that it has "a job to protect democracy for the people of Thailand." The statement amounted to a rejection of Army Gen. Anupong Paochinda's suggestion to quit, which seemed to put him on a collision course with the military, although the general has said he would not launch a coup. An emergency decree would give the prime minister authority to use the military to restore order and allow authorities to suspend certain civil liberties. The security law is separate measure that would enable officials to bar public assembly and "suppress" actions considered harmful to national security. The People's Alliance for Democracy insists it will continue its airport occupation and other protests until Somchai resigns. It also has rejected the general's proposal for elections, pushing instead for the appointment of a temporary government. The alliance comprises mainly well-educated, affluent, urban Thais who want the country to move away from a Western-style electoral system, which they say Thaksin exploited to buy votes. They favor a system in which 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. On Thursday, the EU and the British Foreign Office expressed concern at the deteriorating situation. "We urge all sides to this political dispute to resolve their differences peacefully and legally, respecting Thailand's democratic institutions," Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell said. The European Union said in a statement that "any anti-constitutional attempt to interfere in the democratic process would have a negative impact on EU/Thailand relations." As the deadlock continued, political violence spread Wednesday 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. The protest alliance launched its current campaign in late August, storming the grounds of the prime minister's office, which they continue to use as their stronghold. The group has also tried twice to blockade Parliament, in one case setting off a daylong street battle with police that left two people dead and hundreds injured.