- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2008

BANGKOK, THAILAND (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 will 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.

Meanwhile, the government was drawing up plans to begin flying out thousands of tourists with “urgent needs” from one or two military bases in the next 48 hours. That could include parents with young children and people with medical conditions, said Weerasak Kowsurat, Thailand’s tourism minister.

They would be flown on Thai Airways flights to Singapore or Malaysia, where they could catch connecting flights to their destinations. The planes could then return with incoming passengers, Weerasak said.

“It is a contingency plan so we will try to accommodate the airlines and the passengers’ needs,” said Chaisak Angkasuwan, director general of the country’s Aviation Department.

The government also may use buses and trains to transport tourists to other airports in Thailand, Weerasak said.

A Thai Airways flight from Los Angeles landed Thursday at U-Tapao air force base, 140 kilometers (90 miles) southeast of Bangkok, the airline said.

Protesters 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.

There 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 crisis.

But Nattawut said Anupong’s removal is not on the Cabinet meeting agenda.

The 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, the international airport.

Thousands of foreign tourists have been stranded, including Americans heading 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 much 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.

The prime minister is not budging. In a televised address to the nation, Somchai 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’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.

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.


Associated Press Writers Jocelyn Gecker and Ambika Ahuja contributed to this report.

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