News & Current Affairs

December 1, 2008

Empty aircraft fly from Bangkok

Empty aircraft fly from Bangkok

Stranded passengers at Suvarnabhumi airport, Bangkok

Thousands of passengers have been stranded by the protests

About 40 empty planes have flown out of Bangkok’s international airport after authorities reached a deal with protesters camped there for seven days.

Thousands of travellers have been stranded since anti-government groups took over two airports last week.

The deal allows a total 88 planes to be flown out to other Thai airports, where it is hoped they can evacuate some of the blockaded tourists.

The crisis has economically damaged the country since it intensified last week.

Thailand’s deputy premier for economic affairs is reported to be meeting senior figures in commerce, industry and tourism today to discuss the damage being done.

As the backlog of stranded foreigners grows with each day, foreign embassies are beside themselves with frustration.

Foreign airlines

A spokeswoman for Airports of Thailand said: “Thirty-seven aircraft have left Suvarnabhumi (international airport) since the first aircraft of Siam GA (a regional airline) took off on Sunday evening.

“International airlines will have to contact us to take those stranded aircraft out of Suvarnabhumi.”

Twelve planes belonging to foreign airlines are stranded at Suvarnabhumi, as well as 29 from Thai Airways, 16 of Thai Airasia, 15 from Bangkok Airways, and 22 aircraft from other airlines.

With thousands of British citizens among the estimated 100,000 travellers, a spokesman for the UK’s Foreign Office said: “Bangkok’s two main airports remain closed but airlines have been able to arrange flights and transfers to and from alternative airports.

An anti-government protester outside Bangkok airport

“Some British nationals have been able to fly out but not in the necessary numbers.

“We have continued our consultations with airlines and Thai authorities…and action is being stepped up to enable people to travel in greater numbers, for example via Chiang Mai.”

Chiang Mai, in the north, is 700km (435 milies) by road from Bangkok, while the other option – Phuket, a resort in the south – is 850km (530 miles).

France has said it will send a “special plane” to fly its citizens out of Thailand on Monday, with “those in the most pressing situations…given priority,” AFP news agency reported.

Air France-KLM has already said it would fly travellers out of Phuket.

A few airlines have been using an airport at the U-Tapao naval base, about 140km (90 miles) south-east of Bangkok.

On Sunday more than 450 Muslim pilgrims stranded at the international airport were taken by bus to the base where they were to board a plane for the annual Hajj in Saudi Arabia.

Spain and Australia have been arranging special flights to evacuate their citizens.

Thailand’s tourist industry is losing an estimated $85m (£55.4m) per day, and the government warns that the number of foreign tourists arriving next year may halve, threatening one million jobs.

The protesters from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) are a loose alliance of royalists, businessmen and the urban middle class.

They opposition want the government to resign, accusing it of being corrupt, hostile to the monarchy and in league with exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.


Are you stranded in Thailand or do you have family affected by the protests? What are your or their experiences? Send us your comments

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September 12, 2008

Thai party ‘drops Samak for PM’

Thai party ‘drops Samak for PM’

Ousted Thai PM Samak Sundaravej leaves Parliament House in Bangkok on 11September 2008

Protesters have consistently demanded that Mr Samak leave office

Thailand’s ruling party has dropped ousted PM Samak Sundaravej as its nominee for the job, say party sources.

The decision marks an apparent U-turn by the People’s Power Party (PPP), which earlier seemed determined to re-nominate him to the post.

Protesters have been demanding for weeks that Mr Samak should resign.

The apparent confirmation that he is no longer in contention for the post may pave the way for a settlement of the political crisis, analysts say.

Mr Samak had vowed not to bow to the protesters’ demands, but was eventually forced out earlier this week, over an apparently unrelated appearance in a TV cookery show.

The protesters call him a puppet for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in an army coup in 2006 amid accusations of corruption and abuse of power.

New candidates

Reports are confused as to whether the pressure to drop Mr Samak came from within the ruling party or from its five coalition partners.

The Associated Press news agency quoted PPP spokesman Kuthep Kuthep Saikrajang as saying the party had short-listed three party members as its prime ministerial nominee, though they were not named.

Video still of Samak Sundaravej

Mr Samak was a TV chef before becoming prime minister

The party will need to agree on a compromise candidate before Wednesday, when parliament has scheduled a new vote for prime minister.

Earlier on Friday, a planned vote in the Thai parliament to re-elect Mr Samak as prime minister was postponed because too few MPs turned up.

Thousands of protesters who have been holding a sit-in outside Government House calling for Mr Samak’s resignation were enraged by his re-nomination.

Protesters pledged to continue their protest until a suitable replacement for Mr Samak was found – a scenario which may now have materialized, say correspondents.

Although the PPP is the largest party in parliament, it does not have an outright majority and four of its five coalition partners had already said they wanted an alternative candidate.

On top of that, Mr Samak also faces disqualification again later this month if the verdict in a defamation case goes against him.

September 10, 2008

Thai coalition looks for new PM

Thai coalition looks for new PM

Thai deputy PM and finance minister Surapong Suebwonglee (C) sits next to deputy PM Somchai Wongsawat (L) and justice minister Sompong Amornwiwat (R) during a meeting in Bangkok on 10 September 2008

The mood in Thailand was reportedly tense as the coalition met

Thailand’s political parties are meeting to discuss who should replace Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, a day after he was stripped of office.

Mr Samak has not been seen since the Constitutional Court ruled he broke the law by appearing on a TV cookery show.

Parliament is due to elect 73-year-old Mr Samak’s successor on Friday.

His People Power Party (PPP), the biggest in the six-member coalition, appeared to back away from an earlier pledge to re-nominate him as PM.

“What the party spokesman said yesterday was not the party’s resolution. Our resolution is the next prime minister must come from the People Power Party,” Reuters news agency quoted finance minister and PPP secretary general Surapong Suebwonglee as saying.

‘Fuel the fire’

Now that the dust has settled after the Constitutional Court’s astonishing decision on Tuesday, the bargaining has begun, according to the correspondent in Bangkok, Jonathan Head.

Party factions have been holding meetings throughout the day; some have been in contact with the exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is still influential because of his continued financial support.

POLITICAL CRISIS
26 Aug: Protesters occupy government buildings, demand the government step down
28 Aug: PM Samak promises no use of force against the protesters
30 Aug: Samak rules out resignation, after meeting with Thailand’s king
1 Sept: A late-night clash between pro- and anti-government groups leaves one dead. Samak declares a state of emergency
4 Sept: Samak proposes a national referendum
9 Sept: Court orders Samak to resign for violating constitution

The PPP insists any replacement for Mr Samak must come from within its ranks, but its coalition partners are angling to get one of their own into the seat.

The second-largest of the partners, the Chart Thai Party, said the PPP should not re-nominate Mr Samak.

But Chart Thai’s leader, Banharn Silpa-Archa – who as prime minister a decade ago presided over a currency collapse that triggered an Asian economic crisis – told Reuters he had ruled himself out.

The opposition Democrats are proposing a new government of national unity as the best way out of the crisis – with the clear hint that their party leader should get the job.

Bangkok dangerous?

For the past two weeks, the Thai government has been paralysed by thousands of protesters who have occupied its headquarters, demanding Mr Samak quit.

Anti-government protesters at Government House in Bangkok on 10 September 2008

Protesters are still laying siege to Government House

They accuse him of being a proxy for Mr Thaksin, who was ousted in an army coup in 2006 amid accusations of corruption and abuse of power.

The demonstrators said they would continue to besiege Government House while waiting to see who parliament selects as the new prime minister.

They have already warned that they will continue their protests if Mr Samak or anyone else closely associated with Mr Thaksin is chosen.

The caretaker administration has anticipated the continued protests by proposing that ministers move their offices to the old international airport.

Deputy PPP leader Somchai Wongsawat is acting as a caretaker prime minister until the new premier is named.

Correspondents say his new role could fan Thailand’s political flames as he is the brother-in-law of Mr Thaksin.

September 8, 2008

Thai leader in court over TV show

Thai leader in court over TV show

Thai PM Samak Sundaravej. File photo

Mr Samak was a TV chef before becoming prime minister

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has defended himself in court for appearing on a TV cooking program.

In the latest of a series of problems to beset Mr Samak, he is accused of violating the constitution by working for a private company.

Protesters have now spent nearly two weeks occupying Mr Samak’s office complex, demanding his resignation.

Mr Samak will have to quit if found guilty in this case, which might indirectly end the impasse.

Possible way forward?

Before taking office seven months ago, Mr Samak hosted a popular TV cooking show called Tasting, Grumbling.

He continued to make a few appearances on the show after becoming prime minister.

BANGKOK PROTESTS
26 Aug: Protesters occupy government buildings, demand the government step down
28 Aug: PM Samak promises no use of force against the protesters
29 Aug: Police try to evict protesters but pull back; crowds blockade two regional airports
30 Aug: Samak rules out resignation, following a meeting with Thailand’s king
1 Sep: A late-night clash between pro- and anti-government groups leaves one dead. Samak declares a state of emergency
3 Sept: Thai FM Tej Bunnag resigns
4 Sept: Samak proposes a national referendum

A group of senators filed a petition against Mr Samak, saying that a prime minister is barred by the constitution from working for private companies.

Mr Samak told the Constitutional Court on Monday that he had been paid for his appearances on the TV show, but was not actually employed by the television company.

The court is due to give its verdict on Tuesday.

Local newspapers have speculated about the case being a possible short-term solution to the current political stalemate in Thailand – although some analysts point out that even if Mr Samak stepped down, his party could always vote him back in again.

For the past two weeks, protesters have been camping outside Government House, refusing to leave until Mr Samak quits, but despite pressure from several military leaders the prime minister has refused to go.

Late last week, Mr Samak proposed to hold a referendum on his rule, but the opposition has rejected the offer.

The demonstrators, from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), say Mr Samak is merely a proxy for former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in an army coup in 2006.

One man was killed in clashes between pro- and anti-government groups in Bangkok last week, prompting the government to impose emergency rule in the capital.

September 4, 2008

Thai PM plans crisis referendum

Thai PM plans crisis referendum

Anti-government protesters react as they watch a TV report about Mr Samak's address

Protesters listened to Mr Samak’s address, hoping he would resign

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has announced plans to hold a national referendum in an effort to defuse the ongoing political crisis.

An exact date has not been decided, but a referendum can be held 30 days after being approved by the Senate.

In an earlier radio address, Mr Samak said he would not resign or bow to the demands of protesters who have been occupying his offices since last week.

A state of emergency has been in place in Bangkok since Tuesday.

The anti-government protesters – from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) – say Mr Samak is merely a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006 and is now in exile.

‘Threat of anarchy’

“I am not resigning, I will not dissolve parliament. I have to protect the democracy of this country,” Mr Samak said in his radio address on Thursday morning.

He said he was a defender of democracy against a movement that threatened to bring “anarchy” to Thailand.

“The PAD is an illegal group who have seized the Government House and declared their victory. How can that be correct?” he said.

After his address, Mr Samak summoned his cabinet for an emergency meeting, and they agreed to hold a referendum to try to resolve the crisis.

BANGKOK PROTESTS
26 Aug: Protesters occupy government buildings, demand the government step down
27 Aug: Authorities issue arrest warrants for nine protest leaders
28 Aug: PM Samak promises no use of force against the protesters
29 Aug: Police try to evict protesters but pull back; crowds blockade two regional airports
30 Aug: PM Samak rules out resignation, following a meeting with Thailand’s king
31 Aug: Parliament meets for a special session on the protests
1 Sep: A late-night clash between pro- and anti-government groups leaves one person dead
2 Sep: PM Samak declares a state of emergency
3 Sept: Thai FM Tej Bunnag resigns

A government spokesman said the referendum could take place by early October if the Senate quickly endorsed a bill to organize the vote.

Culture Minister Somsak Kietsuranond said the referendum would ask a range of questions including whether the government should resign, whether it should dissolve parliament and what people think about the ongoing protests.

After hearing Mr Samak’s radio broadcast, one of the PAD’s leaders, Sondhi Limthongkul, told the French news agency AFP: “His speech only increased my confidence that what we are doing is not wrong. We will not go anywhere as long as he stays.”

The PAD has a passionate following in various parts of the country, especially Bangkok, and some powerful backers among the elite.

But it has little support in most of rural Thailand, which voted strongly for Mr Samak, and Mr Thaksin before him. Thai society remains deeply divided over the issue.

As the standoff has developed, some unions have begun supporting the protesters. However, a strike called by an umbrella group of 43 unions on Wednesday appeared to have failed – one piece of good news for the government.

But the prime minister’s attempt to contain the PAD protests with a state of emergency seem to have fallen flat.

The army has refused to exercise the extra powers he gave them, arguing that the conflict is a political one that cannot be solved by military intervention.


Are you in Thailand? Do you believe a referendum will diffuse the political crisis? Send us your comments

September 3, 2008

Thai army chief rules out coup

Thai army chief rules out coup

At least four of the dozens wounded were said to be in serious condition [EPA]

Thailand’s army chief has ruled out the possibility of a military coup, hours after Samak Sundaravej, the prime minister, declared a state of emergency in the capital.

“There is no possibility of a coup. We must turn to the  parliamentary mechanism,” General Anupong Paojinda told reporters on Tuesday.

The army chief also vowed not to use force against protesters following the declaration of the state of emergency.

Protesters are demanding the resignation of Samak’s government which they say is a proxy of Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand’s former prime minister, who was ousted in a coup in September 2006.

Samak declared the emergency after one person was killed and dozens were injured in Bangkok as police and both pro- and anti-government protesters clashed overnight on Monday.

New crisis

Shortly after Samak spoke, a new crisis confronted his government.

The election commission recommended that his People’s Power Party (PPP) be disbanded for alleged electoral fraud committed during the elections in December.

The commission forwarded its findings to the attorney general’s office to decide whether to submit the case to the constitutional court for a final ruling.

This process could take months.Samak and other party leaders would be banned from politics for five years if the ruling is upheld.

Al Jazeera’s correspondent, Selina Downes, reported many were saying that the unanimous vote by the five-member commission could be the beginning of the end of the PPP.

Tuesday’s move was reminiscent of the court dissolving of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party last year. The party later regrouped under the PPP flag.

Thai newspapers have reported that the PPP is preparing for the worst and is lining up a new “shell” party to admit all its MPs, who could try to cobble together another coalition government.

Kudeb Saikrachang, the PPP spokesman, told that party MPs already had another party in mind in case the PPP were to be dissolved.

Soldiers deployed

Under the sweeping emergency powers announced on television and radio, all public gatherings in the capital are banned and restrictions have been imposed on media reports that “undermined public security”.

“There is an urgent need to solve all these problems quickly. Therefore the prime minister declares a state of emergency in Bangkok from now on,” the announcement read.

Around 400 soldiers armed with batons and shields were sent to back up police struggling to contain the street battles in the worst violence since the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) launched its street campaign against the prime minister in May.

Kudeb told Al Jazeera that the PPP had “no part” in the violence.

“We don’t support violent means whatsoever,” he added.

By sunrise on Tuesday, General Jongrak Jutanond, Bangkok’s police chief, said “the situation is now under control”.

Some schools were shut in Bangkok on Tuesday, but morning rush-hour traffic was flowing as normal and the airport, the main gateway for foreign tourists visiting one of Asia’s top holiday destinations, remained open.

‘Soft option’

Samak called emergency rule the “softest means available” for restoring calm.

In a nationally televised news conference on Tuesday, he gave no timeframe for how long the decree would stay in effect but said it would be over “moderately quickly”.

The protesters have vowed to force out Samak’s government [EPA]

The prime minister had said last week that he had hoped to avoid declaring an emergency, but said he was left with little choice after violence erupted.”I did it to solve the problems of the country,” he said. “Because the situation turned out this way, I had no other choice.”

Correspondent Downes said the emergency law gave the prime minister absolute control over the situation, as he had made himself defense minister when he was elected in January and was therefore in charge of the military.

Under a state of emergency, Samak has special powers outside of the constitution to deploy police and soldiers on the streets to quell protests.

Our correspondent said there had been mounting pressure on the government to get a handle on the increasingly chaotic situation.

The PAD had been in the driving seat after storming and occupying the Government House compound a week ago.

Many analysts said there appeared no other way out of the situation.

Strike threat

On Monday, the PAD had announced that its supporters in state enterprise unions would cut off water, electricity and phone service to government offices as part of a “general strike” set for Wednesday.

“There are not enough jails to put us all into”

Chamlong Srimuang, anti-government protest leader

Alliance supporters said they also would delay departures of flights of the national airline.They were already disrupting rail service and planned to cut back public bus transportation as well.

Samak has repeatedly said he would not be bullied by a mob into resigning or dissolving parliament and calling fresh elections.

Leaders of the anti-government protest movement that has occupied the prime minister’s official compound for the past week said they would not budge.

“There are not enough jails to put us all into,” Chamlong Srimuang, one of the leaders of the PAD that is leading the anti-government protests, told thousands of supporters inside the compound camped in behind makeshift barricades of razor wire and car tyres.

Samak’s announcement blamed unnamed people for “wreaking havoc” and undermining the economy and national unity.

Thais Al Jazeera spoke to were angry and frustrated that they were “back to square one” two years after Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a military coup after weeks of street protests against the then prime minister.

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