BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai police on Sunday ordered thousands of anti-government protesters to end their siege of Bangkok’s airports, restricting public gatherings and warning offenders would be jailed or fined.
The stakes rose as thousands of government supporters also rallied in the capital, their first major show of strength since the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) launched its “final battle” on Monday to unseat the government.
Police vowed to keep the two sides apart, but when pro-government forces held a rally in the same part of Bangkok in September, they later marched on PAD lines and fighting ensued.
Suvarnabhumi International airport and the city’s domestic hub, Don Muang, have been paralyzed since late Tuesday and Thursday respectively by the sieges, stranding 100,000 tourists.
The tourism- and export-driven economy, already hit by the global financial crisis, is reeling. Finance Minister Suchart Thada-Thamrongvech said the crisis could cut economic growth to 2 percent from 4.9 percent in 2007, the Bangkok Post said.
The PAD says this is a necessary price to pay for evicting Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, who they accuse of being a front for his brother-in-law, former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and lives in exile.
“Obviously it hurts the economy, but it’s the only way we can push out this government. We have to sacrifice something,” Prathan Tandavanitj, 60, told Reuters as he and his wife attended the PAD rally at the airport terminal.
“Somchai is only in power to hand out corruption. He is taking orders from Thaksin,” the British-educated architect said.
Thaksin remains hugely popular among Thailand’s poor, and thousands of them streamed into Bangkok on Sunday for a rally organized by the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship.
At least 30,000 had gathered by 9 p.m. (1400 GMT), most wearing the red that is associated with their cause. They carried Thai flags, red flags and red heart signs with Thaksin’s picture.
“We love Thaksin. He is our hero,” said one banner in the good-natured crowd.
DAAD leaders called the rally ahead of a crucial vote fraud case that could deliver a crippling blow to the six-party coalition government as it struggles with the protesters.
The Constitutional Court has moved with uncharacteristic speed to wrap up the case on Tuesday, and it is widely expected to order the disbanding of Somchai’s People Power Party (PPP) and two other coalition partners.
If it does, Somchai and other leaders would be barred from politics and many cabinet ministers would have to step down.
“It is obvious that there is interference with justice. It was well planned, and this is a concealed coup,” DAAD leader Veera Musikapong told the Nation newspaper.
The chaos caused by the airport sit-ins has sparked rumors of a military coup, although the army chief has said he will not seize control.
The political chaos has worried Thailand’s neighbors, who are due to meet there next month for a regional summit. Surin Pitsuwan, head of Southeast Asia’s 10-nation grouping, ASEAN, said a postponement might be wise.
Somchai, who refuses to quit and embarked on a rural roadshow on Sunday to drum up support for his government, was expected to make a final decision on the summit on Tuesday.
Deputy Prime Minister Olarn Chaipravat said the damage to Thailand’s “Land of Smiles” image, at a peak time for tourism, may cut arrivals by half to 6-7 million in 2009 and threatens a million jobs.
The government is shuttling tourists to U-Tapao, a Vietnam War-era naval airbase 150 km (90 miles) east of Bangkok, as an alternative landing site for airlines, but travellers have complained of massive delays and confusion.
There was one bit of good news. Around 460 Thai Muslims who have been sleeping at Suvarnabhumi since their flight to Mecca was canceled by the protests are to do their pilgrimage after all, thanks to a chartered Iran Air flight from U-Tapao.
“We are leaving today, finally,” said Yusuf Waedaramae, 33, who was doing the haj with his mother.
It was unclear how police would enforce their order to disperse, which bans public gatherings of more than 5 people.
Around 200 police in riot gear were spotted on Sunday, but they made no move toward the PAD barricades and later retreated to the airport cargo area.
PAD militants, armed with iron rods, wooden clubs and wearing crash helmets, have been quick to confront them.
Some PAD supporters are armed and shot at police lines last month, suggesting any attempt to remove them by force could be bloody, and increasing the chances of military intervention.
Additional reporting by Khettiya Jittapong and Ed Cropley; Writing by David Fox; editing by Tim Pearce