Thai leader keeps out of capital in airport crisis
By VIJAY JOSHI,Associated Press Writers AP - Tuesday, December 2
BANGKOK, Thailand - Thailand's prime minister stayed away from the capital Monday, unable to quell a political crisis that has paralyzed his government for weeks and shut down the city's two main airports and stranded 300,000 foreigners.
Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat has refused to send in police to evict protesters besieging the airports or occupying his office complex for fear of bloodshed, instead making weak pleas for them to go home. The demonstrators vow to stay until Somchai resigns; he has refused.
The monthslong crisis has drained millions of dollars from the economy and is worsening divisions in Thailand.
Late Monday, an explosion hit protesters camped outside Bangkok's airport for domestic flights. Mongkut Wattana hospital said 13 people were injured, including three who suffered serious shrapnel wounds.
It was the third such attack in two days targeting anti-Somchai activists. So far, six people have been killed and dozens injured in bomb attacks, clashes with police and street battles between government opponents and supporters.
Neither the army, a key player in Thai politics, nor the country's revered king has offered Somchai the firm backing he needs to resolve the standoff.
The prime minister has been working out of the northern city of Chiang Mai since Wednesday, saying he wants to avoid a confrontation with the People's Alliance for Democracy, the group that has been campaigning since May to topple the government.
On Monday, Somchai went to a Buddhist temple and prayed with dozens of monks for the health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who celebrates his 81st birthday Friday.
Asked about the crisis, Somchai told reporters: "The authorities are working in line with due process, but we have to depend on police, soldiers and civil servants." He refused to elaborate.
Many Thais hoped a court ruling could resolve the impasse.
The Constitutional Court was scheduled to hear final arguments Tuesday in a case accusing Somchai and others in his party of electoral fraud. A verdict could come as early as this week, and conviction would see Somchai banned from politics and his party dissolved.
Even if that happened and the protesters dispersed, it would likely take at least another week before Bangkok's airports became operational.
The airport closure has blocked all commercial flights in and out of the capital, forcing thousands to cancel vacations during the peak tourist season and halting vital postal air services, such as the delivery of specialized medicines.
Kongrit Hiranyakit, head of the Tourism Council of Thailand, said more than 300,000 travelers were stranded in Thailand, with 35,000 to 45,000 being added each day the airports remained closed.
Some stranded travelers were driving hundreds of miles to other airports, such as Chiang Mai in the north and Phuket in the south to leave the country.
France's government said it sent a 500-seat Boeing 747 to Thailand on Monday to pick up French nationals. It said priority would be given to tourists with medical problems, the elderly and families with small children.
The protesters accuse Somchai of being a puppet of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the alliance's original target. Thaksin, who is Somchai's brother-in-law, was deposed in a 2006 military coup and fled the country to escape trial on corruption charges.
Alliance supporters are largely middle-class citizens who say Thailand's electoral system is susceptible to vote-buying and argue that the rural majority _ the Thaksin camp's political base _ is not sophisticated enough to cast ballots responsibly.
The alliance wants to discard direct elections of lawmakers in favor of appointing most legislators, a stand that has fostered resentment among rural voters and triggered violence between the two camps.
On Sunday, the alliance bused in more protesters to reinforce its siege of the Suvarnabhumi international airport and the domestic Don Muang airport. The reinforcements came from the prime minister's office compound, which the alliance occupied Aug. 26.
Protest leader Chamlong Srimuang said the activists were sent because it was becoming unsafe to have such large numbers at the prime minister's compound, which has frequently come under grenade attacks by unidentified assailants. An attack Sunday wounded 49 people.
"We are not abandoning the site. We will end the siege at all sites at the same time," said Suriyasai Katasila, an alliance spokesman.
Thailand's economy has suffered from the unrest.
Fitch Ratings on Monday forecast that the economy will grow 0.9 percent in 2009, which would be its slowest rate since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.
"It is a concern that, in the absence of effective and credible political leadership, economic policy could be either neglected or ineffective at a time when policy stimulus is likely required," said Vincent Ho, an associate director at Fitch.
Associated Press writers Ambika Ahuja, Jocelyn Gecker and Mick Elmore contributed to this report.
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