Dec 1, 2008

World - Thai airports still closed as court date looms

Darren Schuettler

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Restarting operations at Thailand's main airport will take at least a week once a sit-in by anti-government protesters ends, officials said on Monday, as attention shifted to a court verdict that could end the crisis.

The general manager of Suvarnabhumi airport said it could take a week to resume operations because security and computer systems had been compromised during the blockade by People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protesters.

"Normally, checking the IT systems takes one week," Serirat Prasutanond told Reuters, adding the delay would be even longer if any of the airport's systems needed repair.

"We have to check, recheck, check, recheck," he said.

Thousands of yellow-clad PAD protested defied police and occupied Suvarnabhumi for a seventh day on Monday in a campaign to topple Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, whom they accuse of being a pawn for his brother-in-law, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 coup and exiled since.

As a result, tens of thousands of foreigners have been stranded in Thailand or are unable to even begin their holidays during what should be the peak tourist season.

The main domestic hub, Don Muang, has also been occupied, and the air cargo industry has ground to a halt.

Forecasts for an economy already suffering from the global financial crisis are grim.

Finance Minister Suchart Thada-Thamrongvech told Reuters on Monday the economy might be flat next year, or grow by just 1 to 2 percent, after earlier forecasts of between 4-5 percent.

Thailand's Board of Trade director said the cost of the airport closure was "incalculable," but a senior board member offered a figure, telling the Nation newspaper lost export earnings ran at around 3 billion baht ($85 million) a day.

Somchai has been in the north of the country since returning from an overseas trip last week but is supposed to attend a ceremony to mark the king's birthday in Bangkok on Tuesday.


Also on Tuesday comes the end of a vote fraud case that could deliver a crippling blow to the six-party coalition government.

The Constitutional Court has moved with uncharacteristic speed to wrap up the case and 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. The PPP's dissolution, however, will not necessarily mean a snap election as many MPs will simply switch to a new "shell" party.

The stakes have risen with thousands of government supporters now also rallying in the capital, the first show of strength by the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD) in a week.

DAAD leader Veera Musikapong has denounced the court case as a "concealed coup" and government supporters have threatened to take to the streets if the ruling goes against Somchai.

There was some cheer on Monday for the tens of thousands of tourists affected by the airport closures, when PAD officials said they would allow 88 aircraft stuck at Suvarnabhumi to leave.

Operators said they intended to bring them quickly into service to pick up passengers from U-Tapao and other airports outside the capital, the Bangkok Post said.

The government is providing free hotel rooms and meals for those stranded, but dealing with the estimated 100,000 people affected is proving a logistical nightmare and many are falling through the net.

"We are so tired. When can we go?" 25-year-old Iranian Ali Golbabaei said at Suvarnabhumi airport on Monday, recounting his real-life version of Hollywood movie "The Terminal."

Golbabaei said he and two friends were told accommodation vouchers had run out, and they had no money left after holidaying in the beach resort town of Pattaya.

"Nobody is helping us. We are the last tourists in this airport."

In an ironic twist, "The Terminal" -- in which Tom Hanks plays a traveler stuck in New York's JFK airport after his passport is revoked -- was inspired by the true story of an Iranian man who lived in Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport for 18 years.

The chaos has worried Thailand's neighbors, due to meet in two weeks for a regional summit. Surin Pitsuwan, head of Southeast Asia's 10-nation grouping, ASEAN, said a postponement might be wise.

($1=35.46 Baht)

(Additional reporting by Vithoon Amorn; Writing by David Fox; Editing by Alan Raybould)

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