Thailand is braced for a potentially violent end to the three-day blockade of Bangkok's main international airport as the government declared a state of emergency and rumours of an imminent army coup spread. The Prime Minister, Somchai Wongsawat, unable to return to Bangkok because of the protest, gave security forces powers to oust 4,000 People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) supporters who hold Suvarnabhumi airport.
Last night, more than 40 police vans moved into position around the terminal and officers set up roadblocks at all entrance routes to the airport, searching all vehicles going in and out. There was no immediate sign of a move to forcibly remove the protesters although one PAD source said they were preparing for an attempt to evict them early today.
Inside the departure lounge, beside the main airport information screen still showing Wednesday's cancellations, someone had put up a yellow sign in English. "Our only aim is to fight until the PM resigns," it read. "If in doing so we have caused you any inconvenience we sincerely apologise."
The Prime Minister's declaration empowers the government to suspend some civil liberties, restrict the movement of people and prohibits mass assembly in certain places. Mr Somchai accused the right-wing and essentially anti-democracy PAD of "holding the country and the public hostage". He added: "I do not have any intention to hurt any members of the public." But the emergency measures raise the possibility of violent clashes if the authorities move on Suvarnabhumi and the city's older, smaller Don Muang airport which is also held by protesters.
The Public Health Minister, Chalerm Yoombamrung, said he had 30 emergency medical teams on standby to deal with the aftermath of any crackdown. He added that police would try to negotiate first. "But if the negotiations fail, let's keep our fingers crossed," Mr Chalerm said. "I want them to be successful because I don't want to see bloodshed."
Earlier, Mr Somchai urged the army to stay in its barracks as coup rumours swirled. A government spokesman, Nattawut Saikuar, denied Mr Somchai planned to sack the army chief, Anupong Paochina, a day after the general called for a snap election to defuse the crisis. "Troops should stay in their barracks and the Prime Minister is not going to sack anybody," Mr Nattawut said after a cabinet meeting in the northern city of Chiang Mai.
PAD, which has been demanding the resignation of Mr Somchai and his government, seized the airport on Tuesday, forcing cancellation of all flights in and out. They accuse Mr Somchai of being a proxy for the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Mr Thaksin, who is Mr Somchai's brother-in-law, and former owner of Manchester City football club, is in exile and wanted in Thailand for violating a conflict-of-interest law. Mr Somchai took over as Prime Minister last December after winning elections called after the previous military coup in 2006 in which Mr Thaksin was ousted. Although the right-wing PAD is demanding new elections, it also argues for less democracy, believing that poor Thais should be disenfranchised and the country controlled by the middle and upper classes. The blockade has already cost the country millions in lost revenue and next week is the start of the main tourist season. But the army is unlikely to want to act rashly. Having transferred power to a democratically elected government less than 12 months ago, they do not want to be seen to be overthrowing it and supporting the protesters. But by doing nothing they appear impotent, encouraging the government and the opposition to further entrench their positions.
Yesterday appeared to be more of a carnival mood. Outside the terminal, a band had set up on the concourse playing Thai pop songs, and small stalls sold mats, flags and rattles shaped like hands. Many protesters had brought food, bottled water, and even first-aid kits for those staying overnight.
Don Dualai, 52, had arrived earlier in the day with bags full of toiletries. He was planning to stay for a few hours but had to go home later to look after his young son. "You wait till Friday and the weekend and there will be 200,000 people here," said the business consultant. "Everyone is angry; Thaksin is a traitor and Somchai is his puppet. No one here will leave until they are gone."
Many Western travellers had left for the poolside of the nearby airport hotel. "If it's not open tomorrow we're going to hire a van and drive to Penang and fly to Kuala Lumpur," said Dick Matthews, 62, from Minnesota, who had been on a golfing holiday with his wife. "We've had enough now. We can't wait here forever."
Thailand 'Land of Smiles'
* Thailand has a population of 63 million, slightly more than Britain.
* Almost four-fifths of the population are ethnic Thais. About a fifth are Chinese. The remainder are Malay or from hill tribes or other minorities.
* The national religion is Theravada Buddhism which is practised by more than 95 per cent of Thais.
* Thais pride themselves on their friendliness to strangers (if not necessarily to one another). The country calls itself the "Land of Smiles".
* Thailand is a constitutional monarchy. King Rama IX Bhumibol Adulyadej is the longest reigning Thai monarch, having reigned for more than half a century.
* Thailand is the only country in South-east Asia that has not been a European colony.
* Beaches, temples and the Bangkok nightlife make Thailand a popular tourist destination – it attracted14.5 million visitors last year.
* The tourism authority hoped that 15.5 million people would visit this year and 16 million in 2009, but the recession has lowered expectations.
* The average foreign tourist stayed for nine days in 2007 and spent over 4,000 baht (£75) a day, earning the country more than £9bn.
* Japan and Malaysia provide the most visitors. Britain is the biggest Western market. Officials are targeting the Middle East and eastern Europe as potential growth areas.
* During an upsurge in protests two months ago, nearly two dozen countries issued warnings to their citizens to avoid travelling to Thailand.
* Bird flu, a dispute with Cambodia and violence in the Islamic south have also hit tourism.