Dec 5, 2008

World - Thais mark king’s birthday in sombre mood

BANGKOK, Dec 5 – Thailand marked the king’s birthday on Friday in a solemn mood, concerned for the health of the ageing monarch and worried as well over the country’s debilitating political deadlock.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who turned 81 on Friday, failed to deliver his annual birthday eve address at a time when many Thais had been looking to him to issue a call for unity after protests by People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) activists shut down Bangkok’s main airport for a week.

His speeches in the past three years have been nuanced and focused on the need for national unity, although his calls for clean government were widely read as a swipe at Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist prime minister ousted in a 2006 coup.

Thailand’s caretaker government cancelled next Monday’s special parliamentary session to choose a successor to Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law, who was convicted of vote fraud this week and banned from politics for five years.

Seen as semi-divine by many of Thailand’s 65 million people, the king has intervened in politics three times during his six decades on the throne, variously favouring elected and military administrations.

The monarch has been thrust into the centre of the fray by the PAD’s persistent use of his name in their fight with Thaksin, whose popularity with rural voters, based on cheap healthcare and credit, upset Bangkok’s old royal and military elite.

Bringing hope to 230,000 stranded foreign tourists, Airports of Thailand said the $4 billion Suvarnabhumi airport, one of Asia’s largest, resumed full operations on Friday after the week-long shutdown.

”We are up and running and its business as usual,” transport minister Santi Prompat told reporters during a tour of the airport on Friday.

The airport shutdown has already cost the tourism- and export-dependent economy hundreds of millions of dollars.

Despite the return of relative normality at the airport, analysts said more trouble was in store after the brief hiatus of the king’s birthday.

The caretaker government called off a special parliamentary session on Monday to select a replacement for Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat.

Speaker Chai Chidchob told reporters the king had not responded to parliament’s request for an extraordinary sitting. His comments came before news of the king’s illness.

Somchai’s People Power Party (PPP), which the PAD accuses of being a front for the exiled Thaksin, was dissolved in the same ruling but most of its rank-and-file members simply switched to another ”shell” party.

It and the other five parties in the ruling coalition easily have the numbers in parliament to form the next administration, an eventuality that seems bound to lead the PAD to resume its street protests.

On Friday, thousands of loyal Thais qued up patiently at Bangkok’s gold glittering Grand Palace to wish the king a speedy recovery.

Jai Srisom, 87, boarded a train from central province of Nakhon Sawan and stayed overnight at a Bangkok temple and said he had done this for the past 14 years.

”I wish him a quick recovery. I wish him to live as long as possible. I will continue to do this every year until I can no longer walk.”

Five PAD leaders also showed up at the palace and yellow-shirted supporters swamped them for photographs.

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