Thai police order airport protesters to disperse


Thai police today again ordered anti-government protesters who have laid siege to the city's airports to disperse, banning gatherings of more than five people and warning offenders would be jailed or fined.

The stakes rose as thousands of government supporters also rallied in the capital, their first major show of strength since the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) launched its "final battle" to unseat the government.

Police vowed to keep the two sides apart, but when pro-government forces held a rally in the same part of Bangkok in September, they later marched on PAD lines and fighting ensued.

Suvarnabhumi International airport and the city's domestic hub, Don Muang, have been paralysed since Tuesday and Thursday respectively by the sieges, stranding 100,000 tourists.

It was unclear how police would enforce their order to disperse, which bans public gatherings of more than 5 people.

Around 200 police in riot gear were spotted today, but they made no move toward the PAD barricades and later retreated.

The tourism- and export-driven economy, already hit by global financial woes, is reeling from this latest crisis. Finance Minister Suchart Thada-Thamrongvech said growth could slow to 2 per cent from 4.9 per cent in 2007, the Bangkok Post said.

PAD supporters say this is a necessary price to pay for evicting prime minister Somchai Wongsawat, who they accuse of being a front for his brother-in-law, former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and lives in exile.

Mr Thaksin remains hugely popular among Thailand's poor, and thousands of them streamed into Bangkok today for a rally organised by the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship.

The crowd, most of them wearing the red that is associated with their cause, did not march on PAD lines as feared. They listened to speeches and waved Thai flags, red flags and red heart signs with Mr Thaksin's picture.

The rally was held ahead of a crucial vote fraud case that could deliver a crippling blow to the six-party coalition government as it tries to cope with the protesters.

The Constitutional Court has moved with uncharacteristic speed to wrap up the case on Tuesday, and it is widely expected to order the disbanding of Somchai's People Power Party (PPP) and two other coalition partners.

If it does, Mr Somchai and other leaders would be barred from politics and many cabinet ministers would have.

The airport sit-ins have sparked rumours of a military coup, although the army chief has said he will not seize control.

The chaos has worried Thailand's neighbours, who are due to meet there next month for a regional summit. Surin Pitsuwan, head of Southeast Asia's 10-nation grouping, ASEAN, said a postponement might be wise.

Mr Somchai was to make a decision on the summit on Tuesday.

The government said the damage to Thailand's "Land of Smiles" image from the protests may cut arrivals by half to 6-7 million in 2009 and threaten one million jobs.

The government is shuttling tourists to U-Tapao, a Vietnam War-era naval airbase east of Bangkok, where airlines are picking up stranded travellers.

The first of 88 stranded aircraft flew out of Suvarnabhumi late on Sunday, after the PAD agreed they could be used at U-Tapao and other airports, the Bangkok Post said on its website.

There was one bit of good news. Some 460 Thai Muslims who have been sleeping at Suvarnabhumi since their flight to Mecca was cancelled by the protests are to do their pilgrimage after all, thanks to a chartered Iran Air flight from U-Tapao.