State of Emergency Is Declared Around 2 Key Bangkok Airports

Protesters commandeering Thailand's main airport forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights and stranded thousands of travelers Wednesday in a major escalation of their 4-month-old campaign to oust the prime minister.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 28, 2008; Page A22

BANGKOK, Nov. 27 -- Thailand's prime minister declared a state of emergency Thursday in the areas immediately surrounding two key airports in Bangkok, clearing the way for security forces to move in and eject thousands of anti-government protesters who have taken over the facilities.

But the declaration has left the bitterly divided country on edge, with many expecting that if there is bloodshed when the police move in, the army will respond by mounting a coup to remove the government. The health ministry deployed extra ambulances to the vicinity of the airports on Thursday night.

The People's Alliance for Democracy took over Suvarnabhumi Airport, the country's main international gateway, on Tuesday night, forcing a shutdown that stranded thousands of passengers.

The demonstrators then took over Don Muang airport, which handles a number of domestic routes, on Thursday morning, leaving the country's biggest city without a functioning civilian air gateway.

"It is wrong for protesters to take the entire Thai nation hostage," Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat said in a televised address to the nation on Thursday night.

The closure of the airports is part of the Alliance's campaign to bring down Somchai's government. His administration has largely sidestepped the group's past protests, but it could not ignore the airport takeover.

One minister has estimated that it could cost the country $2.8 billion in lost revenue, a further blow to an economy already reeling from the global economic crisis.

Somchai announced the move toward the limited state of emergency after a cabinet meeting held in the northern town of Chiang Mai to avoid being disrupted by their opposition.

"The government is in a corner," said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University and a specialist on security issues. "If the police do a clean job, the military might not have to step in, but if there is bloodshed, I'm quite certain they will step in."

People in Bangkok are watching the situation nervously. The capital's streets are largely deserted, and coup rumors circulate by mobile telephone text message. Gen. Anupong Paojinda, the head of the army, has repeatedly said that he does not want to mount a coup because he believes that it would do little to solve the underlying problems that gave rise to the current standoff.

But he has come under increasing pressure from people who see the army as the only way to break the political deadlock, which has largely paralyzed the government and limited its ability to respond to challenges such as the global financial crisis. Thais have witnessed 18 military coup attempts -- 11 of them successful -- since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company