Thai government demotes national police chief
By AMBIKA AHUJA AP - Saturday, November 29
BANGKOK, Thailand - Thailand's prime minister demoted the national police chief Friday after thousands of protesters occupied the capital's airports in an anti-government campaign that has plunged the country into its worst political crisis in decades.
The demonstrators stormed Suvarnabhumi international airport on Tuesday and took over the smaller Don Muang domestic airport a day later. The capital remains completely cut off from air traffic, stranding thousands of travelers and dealing a severe blow to the economy and tourism industry.
Government spokesman Nattawut Sai-Kau said National Police Chief Gen. Pacharawat Wongsuwan was moved to an inactive post in the prime minister's office.
Nattawut declined to comment on the order, issued by Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat.
It was not clear if Pacharawat was removed because police failed to evict the protesters, but it could be because he apparently made no attempt to negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis, as the government had asked.
In a televised address to the nation late Friday, Somchai made no mention of Pacharawat except to say "security forces will use peaceful means" to end the crisis.
"There will be negotiations and whatever else which are appropriate in the situation," he said.
Despite his assurances, reporters saw a small buildup of forces near the airport. About 200 police, carrying riot gear and shields, were seen outside airport offices about 400 yards (meters) from the terminal where the protesters are camped out.
Dozens more police armed with assault rifles were deployed on the main road to the airport. Police set up barricades and at least one black police truck and several fire trucks were parked in the area.
The airport takeover capped months of demonstrations by the People's Alliance for Democracy, a loose coalition of various activists. They took over the prime minister's office three months ago, virtually paralyzing the government.
Since then Somchai had been working out of the former VIP lounge at the Don Muang airport, but the airport siege forced him to move his government to the northern city of Chiang Mai.
The protesters say they won't give up until the government steps down.
"We are ready to defend ourselves against any government operations to get us out," said Parnthep Wongpuapan, an alliance spokesman.
An air of festivity enveloped the protesters camped out at the ultramodern Suvarnabhumi airport. Many were sprawled out on the road near signs for different airlines where passengers are usually dropped off.
In front of the United Airlines sign, some women stir-fried vegetables in large woks on open propane gas stoves next to metal vats of iced juice. Nearby, a stage was set up on the back of a truck from where people sang songs, broadcast over a string of speakers. Trucks delivered food in boxes. A long queue formed at a stall giving away ice-cream cones.
"We need the food so people bring it. But we are not enjoying it even though it may look like a festival," Lek Kriengkrairut, a 58-year-old construction contractor, said as she ate an ice-cream cone. She said she brought 200 blankets and 480 towels to give away.
Inside the terminal building, a woman set up a makeshift barber stool to service a long line of men waiting for hair cuts. Artists made quick pencil portraits and stalls handed out oranges, bananas and clothing _ all for free.
Among those stranded were Thai Muslims planning to go on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia this week. Thai Airways flew 250 pilgrims on a special flight from Hat Yai in southern Thailand on Friday, but 460 more remained stuck in Suvarnabhumi.
The lack of use of force by the government and the firing of the police chief have raised doubts about whether Somchai has the support of the police and the army, a powerful institution that has traditionally played a key role in the country's politics.
Army commander Gen. Anupong Paochinda has so far been neutral in the political turmoil, and even urged Somchai to call new elections, triggering speculation of a military coup.
The alliance's protest grew out of its hatred of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a brother-in-law of Somchai. Thaksin was ousted in a bloodless military coup in September 2006 after months of protests by the alliance.
It accused Thaksin and his allies of corruption and abuse of power. Thaksin is in exile, a fugitive from a conviction for violating a conflict of interest law. The group says Somchai is a Thaksin puppet and should go.
The political crisis has battered the stock market, spooked foreign investors and dealt a serious blow to the tourism industry.
The Bangkok Post newspaper quoted experts as saying the damage from the airport shutdown could range between $3.7 billion and $6 billion if the standoff extends to December. The meeting and convention business has already suffered $310 million in losses, it said.
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