Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Thai airports reopening after PM ousted by court

Thai airports reopening after PM ousted by court

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — Victorious anti-government protesters lifted their siege of Bangkok's two airports Wednesday while leaders of the ousted government named a caretaker prime minister to lead the politically chaotic kingdom.

The country's immediate crisis, which virtually severed Thailand's air links to the outside world for a week, appeared to be over and the People's Alliance for Democracy said it was ending six months of daily anti-government protests. But the alliance warned it would be on the streets again if a new government tried to return to its past policies.

A court decision Tuesday forced the country's prime minister from office and disbanded the three top ruling coalition parties. But they quickly were reconstituted under different guises and leaders met Wednesday and named the deputy prime minister as the country's caretaker leader.

A spokesman for the protest alliance, Parnthep Wonguapan, said protesters at Bangkok's international and domestic airports were ordered to "clean up and pack their belongings" before leaving the two sites.

The first commercial airliner to arrive in a week — a flight by the national airline Thai Airways from the resort island of Phuket — landed at Suvarnabhumi international airport at 2.15 p.m. (0715 GMT).

Thai Airways said its flights will also take off from Suvarnabhumi for Sydney, New Delhi, Tokyo, Frankfurt, Seoul and Copenhagen on Wednesday.

In what was billed as a hand-over ceremony, Vudhibhandhu Vichairatana, the chairman of the Airports of Thailand, hugged and shook hands with alliance leaders in front of a Buddhist shrine as protesters danced to folk music and trucks loaded with their gear rolled out of the airport.

"We want to clean up the airport before we leave. We want PAD (the alliance) to have a good image," said Bow Piyapat, a souvenir maker, as she wielded her mop around rows of check-in counters at Suvarnabhumi.

A stream of cars, trucks and buses transported the protesters out of the airport.

"See you later when the country needs us!" one of them shouted, as protesters waved and honked.

About 700 soldiers inspected the airport for bombs and weapons, and airport security officials set up a perimeter around the airport as they dismantled blockades and checkpoints set up by the alliance.

But the image of the alliance as well as Thailand in general has been battered, especially among some 300,000 travelers still stranded by last week's airport takeovers. The months of protests and political uncertainty is also hammering the economy and vital tourism industry.

At least six people have been killed and scores injured in clashes in recent months.

The protesters — who seek to eliminate the one-person, one-vote system — are also seeking to purge the nation of the influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They accuse Thaksin of massive corruption and seeking to undermine the country's revered constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Thaksin was ousted by a September 2006 military coup, but the alliance alleges that governments voted into office since then have been proxies for the exiled Thaksin.

"The PAD will return if another (Thaksin) proxy government is formed or anyone tries to amend the constitution or the law to whitewash some politicians or to subdue the monarch's royal authority," one of the protest leaders, Sondhi Limthongkul, warned Tuesday night.

Earlier Tuesday, Somchai's People's Power Party, the Machima Thipatai party and the Chart Thai party were found guilty by the Constitutional Court of committing fraud in the December 2007 elections that brought the coalition to power.

The ruling banned Somchai, Thaksin's brother-in-law, and 59 executives of the three parties from politics for five years. Of the 59, 24 are lawmakers who will have to abandon their parliamentary seats.

A meeting Wednesday among the three ousted parties, which vowed to stick together in a coalition, endorsed Deputy Prime Minister Chaowarat Chandeerakul as the caretaker prime minister.

Members of the three parties, who were not banned from politics, are expected to form new parties that will form an alliance with three smaller parties of the outgoing coalition. The coalition will then have to pick a full-time prime minister and get parliament's endorsement within 30 days.

The anti-government alliance claims Thailand's rural majority — who gave landslide election victories to the Thaksin camp — is too poorly educated to responsibly choose their representatives and says they are susceptible to vote buying.

It wants the country to abandon the system of one-person, one-vote, and instead have a mixed system in which most representatives are chosen by profession and social group.

Chaturon Chaisaeng, a former Thaksin Cabinet member, suggested there could be civil war if the protest alliance presses for a non-elected government.

Associated Press reporters Mike Casey and Mick Elmore contributed to this report.


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