By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 27, 2008
BANGKOK, Nov. 26 -- Thailand's powerful military stepped into a battle Wednesday between the government and protesters occupying Bangkok's international airport, calling on the government to resign and the protesters to leave the buildings they have seized.
Both sides promptly rejected the appeal, intensifying a political crisis that threatens to ignite civil strife.
On Tuesday night, protesters from the opposition People's Alliance for Democracy seized Suvarnabhumi Airport, the country's main international gateway, forcing it to close down and stranding thousands of passengers. The action deepened a long-running struggle between the opposition and the government, prompting the military to intervene.
Thai army chief Anupong Paochinda said at a news conference Wednesday that Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat "should dissolve parliament and call a snap election" as a way to end the crisis.
But Somchai, speaking on national television after his return from a summit in Peru, said his government was democratically elected and would remain in office for the "good of the country."
"My position is not important. But democratic values are," the prime minister declared.
Somchai said his cabinet would meet Thursday to discuss what to do about the protesters.
People's Alliance spokesman Suriyasai Katasila also rejected the army chief's proposal, saying the protesters would not leave the airport "if Somchai does not quit."
The protesters went on to show their contempt for the army's intervention by taking over Bangkok's domestic airport early Thursday. The authorities closed Don Muang airport for safety reasons after 3,000 protesters stormed the terminal.
The move leaves Bangkok without a functioning civil airport and creates further headaches for the thousands of overseas tourists hoping to use Don Muang to take connecting flights to Thailand's other international airports to get home after Suvarnabhumi was closed.
On a Web site used by the People's Alliance to post official announcements, Sonthi Limthongkul, a leader of the group, said that the opposition would countenance negotiations only after the government had left office and that a resignation alone would not suffice.
The standoff raised fears that the military could stage another coup, but Anupong, the army chief, ruled out such a move, saying it would not resolve the crisis. The military removed Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister two years ago.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said the army's solution is the least damaging of the options available. "This option does not get us out of the cycle," he said. "It won't on its own solve the crisis, but it would buy us some time. It could act as a relief valve."
The standoff has divided Thailand. Although the predominantly urban, middle-class supporters of the People's Alliance detest the government, Somchai's administration retains the support of its core constituency: the farming regions in the country's populous northeast. Supporters would probably vote again for Somchai in any new election.
Thitinan also warned of a more dangerous scenario, in which government supporters take to the streets in large numbers, leading to widespread civil strife.
Thai media reported Wednesday that a People's Alliance supporter was dragged from his car in the northern city of Chiang Mai and fatally shot by a pro-government mob.
At the root of the conflict lies Thaksin, a self-made telecommunications billionaire who was elected prime minister in 2001.
He consolidated his power by offering his core rural constituency cheap health care and subsidized village funds, creating a formidable electoral machine but alienating traditional urban elites.
Thaksin's opponents alleged that he used his office to enrich himself and his friends. Amid growing public discontent, centered in Bangkok and led by an earlier incarnation of the People's Alliance, the military overthrew Thaksin in 2006.