4 Dec 2008

Thai protesters abandon airport blockade

5:58 am on 4 December 2008

Thai anti-government protesters have left Bangkok's main airports after an eight-day siege that has paralysed government and stymied tourism.

The protesters packed up bedding before handing over Suvarnabhumi international and Don Muang domestic airports to authorities on Wednesday.

The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) called off the protests after a court banned Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat from politics.

Parliament will vote for a new prime minister on Monday. That person is likely to come from the popular parties so despised by PAD protesters.

The protests have left thousands of tourists stranded in Thailand and the country has lost millions of dollars in revenue.

A Thai Airways flight carrying 305 passengers from the southern resort island of Phuket touched down at Suvarnabhumi airport at 2.15pm local time on Wednesday.

International flights were due to resume on Thursday. However, a full return to normal will take two days, officials said.

The airport closures have left more than 300,000 tourists stranded in Thailand, and cost the economy huge amounts in lost revenues.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade says approximately 140 New Zealanders have now left Thailand, but about 250 are still stranded.

New Zealand has sent an airforce Hercules to Malaysia to be on stand-by to help New Zealanders stranded in Thailand.

Prime Minister John Key said it was not known when commercial flights will resume, so the Hercules, which can transport 65 people per flight, would remain on stand-by.

Protest halt 'conditional'

The protest leaders announced they would halt all rallies, including sieges of the Bangkok airports, after a court banned Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat from politics for five years on Tuesday and ordered that his party disband.

PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul said the protest halt was conditional. "If a puppet government returns or a new government shows its insincerity in pushing for political reform, we will return."

Government party members said they would switch to a new "shell" party, already set up, and vote for a new prime minister on Monday, setting the stage for another flashpoint in Thailand's three-year political crisis.

Under the constitution, most MPs can keep their seats under another party name, and all six parties in Thailand's ruling coalition on Tuesday vowed to stick together and form a new government.

Government supporters at the court were furious at Tuesday's ruling and blockaded the court building, refusing to let the judges out.

PAD protesters accuse Mr Somchai of being a pawn for his brother-in-law, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a coup in 2006. They say Mr Somchai's administration was corrupt and hostile to the much-revered monarchy.

Meanwhile, Thailand has postponed its hosting of an Association of South East Asian Nations summit, due in December, until March due to the deepening political crisis.

The group comprises the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia. Its dialogue partners China, Japan and South Korea are also due to attend the summit.