DENIS D. GRAY
BANGKOK, Thailand – Thailand's battered political parties tried to find a replacement for the ousted prime minister as airport authorities hurried Thursday to restore international air links severed by protesters who occupied Bangkok's two airports for a week.
The airport sieges, which were lifted Wednesday, had stranded more than 300,000 travelers while an unknown number have been trying to fly into Thailand from around the world.
Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi international airport will be "open for full services including check-in and immigration" at 11:00 a.m. (0400 GMT) Friday, airport chief Serirat Prasutanont said in a statement.
It is now up to the airlines to resume operations from Suvarnabhumi, which was shut after anti-government protesters swarmed the facility Nov. 25.
Singapore Airlines said it will operate one flight to and from Suvarnabhumi on Friday and its full schedule of five flights from Saturday. National airline Thai Airways has already started operations from the airport, and many other airlines are following suit.
Thai officials have been scrambling to get the airport functional to mark the birthday Friday of the revered constitutional monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
He was scheduled to give his customary birthday-eve speech Thursday night. Many Thais hoped it would give guidance for ending the country's political crisis, which received a temporary respite when a court verdict ousted Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat on Tuesday and anti-government protesters lifted their airport sieges the following day.
Serirat said many airlines such as Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways, Singapore Airlines, China Airlines and Japan Airlines have already requested to start flying out of Suvarnabhumi.
Serirat said representatives of the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Air Transport Association and foreign embassies will visit the airport Friday to inspect safety and security.
For now, most airlines were operating out of U-Tapao naval base in eastern Thailand to take stranded passengers out.
Thai Airways and the airports authority of Thailand were preparing to sue the demonstrators for damages resulting from the occupation of the airports, said Chaisak Anksuwan, general director of the Aviation Department. Legal action would be taken as soon as the damage was assessed, he said.
Local media speculated widely about the selection of a new prime minister following the dissolution by court order Tuesday of the three main parties of the ruling coalition, and Somchai's ouster from politics for five years.
The parties, which were meeting Thursday, have reconstituted under new guises and have 30 days to come up with a candidate before Parliament meets. On Wednesday they endorsed Deputy Prime Minister Chaowarat Chandeerakul as caretaker leader, but were deciding Thursday on a candidate for permanent prime minister.
The People's Alliance for Democracy, which led 192 days of anti-government protests and seized the airports, has warned it would resume demonstrations should a candidate close to exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra be put forward.
Thaksin, toppled in a 2006 military coup, is accused by the alliance of gross corruption and attempting to undermine the much-revered monarchy. The demonstrators say that the latest government was controlled by Thaksin's proxies.
Although exiled, Thaksin remains extremely popular among the rural poor and the new government is certain to include his allies, igniting fears of future instability.
"It is nothing more than an intermission. It is not over until the two sides of the political spectrum can reconcile and the prospect of that happening is very bleak," said Charnvit Kasetsiri, a historian and former rector of Bangkok's Thammasat University.
Other analysts said there are high expectations from the speech later Thursday by the king, who over the past four decades has stepped in to defuse several bloody political confrontations.
"If the royal comments are seen as fair and balanced with a way (out of a crisis), people will try to think about that and maybe to push for that way forward," said Thitinan Pongsidhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
Following months of protest by the alliance, in which at least six people were killed and scores injured, the country's Constitutional Court ruled Tuesday that the three ruling coalition parties were guilty of committing fraud in the December 2007 elections which brought them to power.
The ruling banned Somchai, Thaksin's brother-in-law, and 59 executives of the three parties from politics or five years.
Charnvit said that despite its losses the coalition was still strong enough to form a government dominated by pro-Thaksin politicians.
The anti-government alliance claims Thailand's rural majority — who gave landslide election victories to the Thaksin camp — is too poorly educated to responsibly choose their representatives and says they are susceptible to vote buying.
It wants the country to abandon the system of one-person, one-vote, and instead have a mixed system in which most representatives are chosen by profession and social group.
Pro-Thaksin politicians have been pushing to amend the constitution to allow Thaksin, who is also banned from politics and convicted on corruption charges, to make a comeback.
Associated Press reporters Ambika Ahuja, Vijay Joshi, Mike Casey and Mick Elmore contributed to this report.