Thai protests spread to disrupt rail and air links

Saturday 22 October 2011 21:16

Anti-government protests forced Phuket airport to close and disrupted rail services in Thailand on Friday, piling pressure on Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej's seven-month old government.

As demonstrations spread from the capital, where protesters have been occupying the prime minister's compound since Tuesday, some of Samak's advisers pushed him to impose emergency rule, two government sources said.

"It has been proposed as an option to him," one source who declined to be named said.

They said Samak had earlier met with top military and police officers to discuss the growing protests, led by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), that have sparked fears of major violence and rattled investors.

A state of emergency would allow the government to deploy soldiers to disperse the protesters, although Army chief Anupong Paochinda said the situation did not warrant it.

Less than two years after a coup against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Anupong said another putsch would not resolve the deep divisions in Thai society.

"A coup would not solve anything. It will hurt the country's image and worsen the country's situation," he told reporters.

There was no immediate comment from Samak who faced new pressure as the PAD blocked roads to the airport in Phuket, suspending flights to the major tourist destination, a Thai Airways spokeswoman said.

The airport at Krabi, another southern beach destination, was also closed.

State rail workers began a strike that halted 15 percent of services nationwide, a union spokesman said, and similar actions were being mulled by unions at other state agencies.

Earlier, riot police scuffled with demonstrators barricaded inside the PM's compound as they delivered an eviction order against the group, whose campaign to oust the government is now three months old.

Police briefly detained at least 15 protesters and took up positions around the PAD-controlled area, but they did not move to evict the 4,000-strong crowd inside.

"We are trying to deal with the protesters as gently as possible," Police spokesman Surapol Thuanthong told reporters.

The PAD, whose 2005 protests against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra contributed to his removal in a coup a year later, urged more supporters to gather until the current elected administration fell.

"Today is the Judgement Day. It is the People's Revolution and we must win," PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul told the cheering crowd from atop the rock concert-like like platform that now sits on the PM's front lawn.

Nine PAD leaders have been charged with insurrection, a crime that can carry the death penalty, after violent raids on government offices and a state TV station on Monday. Most domestic newspapers said the raids were too much.

The motley group of businessmen, academics and activists launched the street campaign on May 25, accusing Samak's coalition government of being an illegitimate proxy of Thaksin, now in exile in London.

The PAD also proclaims itself to be a defender of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej against a supposed Thaksin plan to turn Thailand into a republic - a charge vehemently denied by both Thaksin and the government.

The group have barricaded themselves in the 11-acre compound behind razor wire and car tyres. Sentries armed with bars and golf clubs poured a mix of gasoline and shampoo across the road, turning it into an ice-rink.

At the barricades, PAD supporters held aloft pictures of King Bhumibol, shouting "We love the King. We love Thailand". Inside the compound, thousands sat on plastic sheeting, clapping and cheering speeches by the group's leaders.

Thailand's stock market turned lower after the riot police moved in, but later recovered to end the day slightly higher.

Thai shares have fallen 23 percent since the street campaign began in May amid fears of everything from policy paralysis at a time of stuttering economic growth to bloodshed on the streets.

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