BANGKOK (Reuters) - Protesters laying siege to Bangkok’s two airports braced for a battle with security forces on Friday after Thailand’s prime minister declared a state of emergency to end a blockade threatening to cripple the economy.
People’s Alliance of Democracy “security guards” manned a series of road blocks of razor wire, crash barriers and plastic water bottles on the expressway leading to the capital’s $4 billion Suvarnabhumi airport, shut since Tuesday.
The men, armed with sticks and metal bars, checked cars entering the area. There were similar scenes at Bangkok’s Don Muang airport, whose closure late on Wednesday severed all air links between the city of 8 million and the outside world.
In a televised address from the government stronghold of Chiang Mai, 700 km (400 miles) north of Bangkok, Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat declared emergency law, saying the export and tourism-driven economy could not tolerate further disruption.
“I need to do something to restore peace and order,” he said.
A similar declaration in September to dislodge PAD protesters occupying Government House was ignored by the army and, even though the PAD were preparing to repel a police assault, it was not clear when, or even if, one would materialize.
The PAD refused to end their sit-ins, which have forced hundreds of flights to be canceled, stranding thousands of foreign tourists in one of Asia’s biggest air hubs and grounding millions of dollars of air cargo.
“We will not leave. We will use human shields against the police if they try to disperse us,” PAD leader Suriyasai Katasila told Reuters.
Another PAD figurehead threatened to expand the movement’s six-month campaign by bringing Bangkok’s traffic network to a halt with flying protests at dozens of motorway intersections.
A government spokesman said the economy could lose at least 100 billion baht ($2.8 billion) if the sieges drag on for a month, and reduce GDP growth for the year to 4 percent from a current estimate of 4.5 percent, already a seven-year low.
Thailand’s three-year-old political crisis has deepened dramatically since the PAD began a “final battle” on Monday to unseat a government it accuses of being a pawn of former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 coup. Somchai is Thaksin’s brother-in-law.
Pressure has built on the army to step in since Somchai rejected military calls to quit, but pro-government forces are threatening to take up arms if the elected administration is ousted, raising fears of major civil unrest.
Anupong has repeatedly said he would not take over, arguing the army is powerless to heal the fundamental political rifts between the Bangkok elite and middle classes who despise Thaksin, and the majority rural and urban poor who love him.
However, rumors continued to swirl round the capital of the army preparing to launch what would be Thailand’s 19th coup or attempted coup in 76 years of on-off democracy.
“They are 100 percent on standby,” a high-ranking former military officer, who declined to be named, said.
Some office workers went home early on Thursday and the United Nations advised its staff to remain indoors.
Tension has been rising elsewhere in the country, with a pro-government gang in Chiang Mai dragging a PAD activist from his car and shooting him dead.
The government offered to shuttle thousands of stranded tourists by bus to U-Tapao, a Vietnam War-era naval airbase 150 km (90 miles) east of Bangkok as an alternative landing site for airlines. It is not known if any have taken up the offer.
Among those stranded at the 125,000 passenger-a-day Suvarnabhumi were hundreds of Thai Muslims booked on a once-in-a-lifetime haj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
“Some of them have saved all their lives for this,” said Muhammed Yusouf, guide accompanying the pilgrims, many of whom would be traveling by plane for the first time.
“If they miss this opportunity, they might not get a second chance.”
Additional reporting by David Fox and Nopporn Wong-Anan; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Jeremy Laurence