Thai government removes national police chief
By AMBIKA AHUJA AP - 2 hours 45 minutes ago
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.
The reason for Pacharawat's removal was not given, but some newspapers speculated he was not actively cooperating with the government to put an end to the crisis.
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 Suvarnabhumi 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 checkpoints on all main roads leading to the airport, in an apparent attempt to prevent more people from joining the protest. Several police and fire trucks were parked in the area.
However, there was no sign of active preparations for any imminent raid.
The authorities have repeatedly said they will use force only as a last resort.
"We were instructed by the government not to use any violent force against protesters. We will definitely follow the instructions strictly," said Interior Minister Kowit Wattana, who supervises the police department.
At Don Muang airport, the Metropolitan Police issued a statement asking the protesters to leave immediately.
Bangkok police chief Lt. Gen. Suchart Maunkaew said police would issue a second statement later giving a deadline.
"If the protesters do not follow (the order), we may have no choice but to use tougher measures," he said, without elaborating.
The lack of use of force so far and the firing of the national 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 thus far been neutral in the political turmoil, and even urged Somchai to call new elections, triggering speculation of a military coup.
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 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. Some women stir-fried vegetables in large woks on open propane gas stoves next to metal vats of iced juice.
"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.
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.
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