Thai protesters lift airport siege

BANGKOK Wed Dec 3, 2008 2:44pm EST

1 of 23. Tourists from Greece pose as they exit an Thai Airways flight from Phuket, the first to land at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport December 3, 2008, after a week long anti-government protest paralyzed air travel.

Credit: Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom

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BANGKOK (Reuters) - Anti-government protesters lifted their crippling, eight-day blockade of Thailand's main airport on Wednesday, raising the hopes of 230,000 stranded tourists even though there is no end in sight to the wider political crisis.

The central bank slashed interest rates by a shock 100 basis points to 2.75 percent, reflecting the impact of the siege on a tourism- and export-dependent economy already feeling the effects of global slowdown.

A Thai Airways domestic flight landed at 0715 GMT (2:15 a.m. EST) and several international flights were scheduled to leave soon after, although it was unclear when full operations would resume.

Still cheering Tuesday's sacking of the government by the courts, thousands of yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) activists made way for an army of cleaners at the $4 billion Suvarnabhumi terminal, one of the world's biggest.

"I have strong confidence that everything will be OK and will be back to normal in two days," airport general manager Serirat Prasutanond told Reuters as PAD officials swept up debris left by their sit-in, the latest stunt in a six-month campaign.

Serirat said on Tuesday security sweeps and computer system checks would keep the airport closed until December 15.

Whatever the final opening date, Thailand looks set to remain politically riven and chaotic for much longer.

Dissolution of the ruling People Power Party (PPP) will heal none of the basic rifts between Bangkok's royalist elite and middle classes, who despise ousted and exiled leader Thaksin Shinawatra, and the urban poor and rural masses who love him and continue to vote his allies into office.

"Thailand remains locked in this structurally flawed system for the foreseeable future," said IHS Global Insight analyst Kristina Azmi. "The risk of civil unrest is growing and with it the accompanying risk of military intervention."

"WE'LL BE BACK"

The PAD, led by a group of royalist businessmen, academics and activists, formally marked the end of the occupation by singing the king's anthem. Ominously, the PAD protesters vow to return if they see Thaksin allies getting near power again.

"I am sad that we are going," said Ranatip, 48, an unemployed office assistant. "But I am ready to fight for my king and my country. I will come back as soon as I am needed."

Even though Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat -- Thaksin's brother-in-law -- and several cabinet ministers were banned by Tuesday's court ruling, most MPs have survived and simply switched to a new "shell" party.

Parliamentary numbers suggest they have a comfortable majority, and acting Prime Minister Chavarat Charnvirakul said parliament would convene on December 8 to select a new prime minister, the third in as many months.

Cargo flights started to leave Suvarnabhumi on Tuesday but the occupation has dealt an enormous blow to tourism and the export sector, already reeling from the global economic crisis.

Weerasak Kowsurat, the outgoing minister for tourism in Somchai's government, estimated around 230,000 foreign tourists remained stranded, although a steady flow of planes had left from airports outside the capital.

"These tourists left stranded should not have to wait for the official reopening of the airport, which is probably going to take another week. At this point, I think, what's important is to get them home as soon as possible," he told Reuters.

STRUGGLING ECONOMY

Finance Minister Suchart Thada-Thamrongvech said this week the economy would struggle to grow at all next year.

The rate move, Thailand's first monetary easing since July 2007 and the biggest cut since the central bank adopted its inflation targeting regime in May 2000, brought the benchmark rate to its lowest in more than three years.

Some newspapers said Health Minister Chalerm Yubamrung, who has not had to step down, could be elected prime minister next week, a controversial choice since he is a hardline former policeman detested by the PAD.

Repairing the damage to Thailand's "Land of Smiles" image and economy will take years, with the Association of Travel Agents predicting a fall of a million tourists in the November-March high season.

Some ministers have already said arrivals next year could drop as low as 6 million compared to a target this year of more than 14 million.

"A good image and a solid reputation take years to blossom. Sadly, it has been snatched away in the blink of an eye," the Bangkok Post said in an editorial.

"The notion of Thailand as the Land of Smiles is becoming obsolete. It is fast turning itself into a land of misery and strife."

(Additional reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan, Ploy Chitsomboon and Darren Schuettler; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Alan Raybould and Sanjeev Miglani)

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