Thai protesters block airport road, strike fails

BANGKOK Tue Nov 25, 2008 4:33pm IST

Anti-government protesters gather at the new government offices in Bangkok's Don Mueang (Muang) airport November 25, 2008. Protesters blocked the expressway to Thailand's main international airport on Tuesday, the latest twist in an increasingly desperate six-month campaign to unseat the elected administration. REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang

Anti-government protesters gather at the new government offices in Bangkok's Don Mueang (Muang) airport November 25, 2008. Protesters blocked the expressway to Thailand's main international airport on Tuesday, the latest twist in an increasingly desperate six-month campaign to unseat the elected administration.

Credit: Reuters/Sukree Sukplang

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BANGKOK (Reuters) - Protesters blocked the expressway to Thailand's main international airport on Tuesday, the latest twist in an increasingly desperate six-month campaign to unseat the elected administration.

Channel 3 television said the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protesters had obstructed all but one lane of the multi-lane expressway to Suvarnabhumi airport, the main gateway for 13 million tourists who visit each year.

Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, who has rejected PAD demands he resign, is due to return on Wednesday from an Asia-Pacific summit in Peru.

Earlier, the protesters surrounded Bangkok's old Don Muang airport, north of the city, where ministers have been running the country since the PAD invaded Government House in August.

"It is time to make a clear-cut choice between good and evil, between those who are loyal and traitors," PAD leader Somsak Kosaisuk told 10,000 yellow-shirted supporters waving hand clappers and shouting anti-government slogans.

Domestic flights were operating as usual from Don Muang, and there was no disruption to road or rail services despite a strike called by state sector unions in support of the PAD.

Any serious labour disruption would deepen the economic impact of the long-running political crisis, which has stymied government decision-making and raised fears about the export-driven economy's ability to cope with a global crisis.

The government forecast this week that the economy would grow just 4.5 percent this year, its slowest rate in seven years.

However, Thai shares and the baht shrugged off the protests, with the main stock index up 1.6 percent as Asian bourses rose after the U.S. bailout of Citigroup.

WANING SUPPORT

The PAD, which billed this week's action as the "final battle", forced the government to postpone to next month a joint parliamentary session to approve international agreements for a regional summit starting in mid-December.

But these latest protests are unlikely to deliver a knock-out blow to the People Power Party (PPP) government.

Opinion polls show waning public support for the unelected coalition of royalist businessmen, academics and activists who accuse Somchai of being a puppet of his brother-in-law, Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted as prime minister by the military in 2006.

Some analysts say the PAD's powerful backers in the Bangkok establishment are getting cold feet about the damage the political strife is inflicting on the economy.

"The people who've been backing PAD in the background have got frightened that it's getting out of control. It's a threat to public order and even the structure of the state itself," historian and political analyst Chris Baker said.

Despite his ties to Thaksin, Somchai's bland, inoffensive personality has proved a hard target for the PAD.

Police are eager to avoid a repeat of Oct. 7, when two protesters were killed and hundreds injured in street battles, the worst violence in Bangkok since the army opened fire on democracy protesters in 1992.

Riot police have been carrying only shields and melting away when faced with PAD youths armed with iron bars, golf clubs and stakes.

Bloodshed could trigger another coup only two years after the army removed Thaksin, but army chief Anupong Paochinda reiterated on Tuesday that a putsch would do nothing to resolve fundamental political rifts.

The PAD enjoys the backing of Bangkok's urban middle classes and elite, including Queen Sirikit. Thaksin and the government claim their support from the rural voters who returned the PPP in a December election.

(Additional reporting by Ed Cropley)

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