Anti-government protestors leave airports after week-long closures

Other News Materials 3 December 2008 08:04 (UTC +04:00)

Thousands of anti-government protestors ended their occupation of Bangkok's two airports Wednesday, ending a week-long siege that crippled the country's tourism and exports sectors, dpa reported.

The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) announced late Tuesday night that it would lift its siege of Suvarnabhumi International Airport and Don Mueang after achieving its political objective of forcing Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat out of his post, and blocking constitutional amendments that might have led to a return to politics of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, their nemesis.

The PAD promised to leave the two airports by mid-day Wednesday. The demonstrators have also evacuated Government House, which they seized on August 26.

Suvarnabhunmi, the capital's new airport that cost 4 billion dollars to construct, was expected to be partially reopened for flights by Friday, in time to mark Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej's 81st birthday.

"It will be reopened by December 4 midnight, but not 100 per cent operational," said Serirat Pasutanong, acting president of the Airports of Thailand, the state authority responsible for airport management.

Thai Airways International, the national carrier, on Wednesday announced plans to resume flights from the airport immediately after midnight on December 5.

The damage done to the airports' infrastructure by the PAD week-long occupation has yet to be fully assessed, authorities said.

Estimates of the damage done to Thailand's overall economy by the week-long closure of all flights from the capital, a leading aviation hub for South-east Asia, are incalculable.

Industry sources estimated that the country lost more than 86 million dollars a day from undelivered cargo. Losses to the kingdom's tourism industry, one of the leading sources of foreign exchange, have been estimated at 100 billion baht (2.9 billion) in the long term.

While the PAD, a loose coalition of groups united in their hatred of fugitive former prime minister Thaksin and the self-serving politics he came to represent, have claimed a victory it remains unclear if they have succeeded in their ultimate goal of keeping Thaksin and his cronies out of politics.

On Tuesday, the Constitution Court dissolved the ruling People Power Party and two of its coalition partners - Chart Thai and Matchimathipatya parties - and banned 33 of their executive members from politics for five years.

The verdict automatically forced Somchai, Thaksin's brother-in-law and a top party executive, to step down as prime minister along with nearly half his cabinet.

Thailand is now under a caretaker cabinet until parliament is reconvened to elect a new premier.

The remaining elected members of parliament are expected to join new parties, already set up in anticipation of the dissolutions.

Controversial political Chalerm Yoobamrung, an non-executive member of the former PPP, has been named as a likely candidate for the premiership as he is loyal to Thaksin.

But such an appointment might bring the PAD back to the streets.

PAD leader Sonmdhi Limthongkul warned Tuesday night protests might resume if the new government tries to return a "Thaksin proxy" to power.

"The PAD will return if another proxy government is formed or anyone tries to amend the constitution or the law to whitewash some politicians or to subdue the monarchy's royal authority," Sondhi said.

The PAD has been leading anti-government protests in Bangkok since May 25, when the government initiated moves to amend the 2007 constitution which were interpreted as efforts to reinstate Thaksin and his political allies.

Thaksin, a billionaire former telecommunications tycoon who was prime minister between 2001-06, rose to unprecedented popularity in Thailand on the back of populist policies that secured the support of much of the country's poor - the vast majority of the electorate.

His near-monopoly of political power, and undermining of constitutional checks and balances, was ended by a military coup on September 19, 2006.

A constitutional tribunal dissolved his former Thai Rak Thai party in May 2007, and banned him and 110 party executives from politics for five years.

In October, the Supreme Court for Political Office Hodlers found Thaksin guilty of abuse of power for allowing his wife to successful bid on a plot of land in a government auction and sentenced him to two years in jail.

Despite the sentence, Thaksin has vowed to return to politics.