Sunday, 30 November 2008

Thai Business Leaders Call on Premier to Step Down

By Suttinee Yuvejwattana and Daniel Ten Kate

Nov. 30 (Bloomberg) -- Thailand’s business leaders said Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat should step down to end a siege at the nation’s main international airport, which has paralyzed travel and threatens a million jobs in the tourism industry.

Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport remained shut for a sixth day as negotiations failed to clear thousands of protesters who are demanding Somchai’s resignation. Violence escalated in the past 24 hours, as demonstrators attacked police with steel bars near the airport and a blast at a government compound in the capital wounded 34 people.

“We’ve asked the government to resign or dissolve the parliament because we think this is the best way out,” Pramon Sutivong, chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, said today.

The call from the Chamber of Commerce increases the pressure on Somchai, who has been holed up in the northern city of Chiang Mai because of concern that growing protests in the capital may lead to a coup. A pro-government group plans to hold a rally in Bangkok today, increasing the likelihood of a bloody clash that may force the army to intervene.

“This situation can’t go on for long” Pramon said. “It will soon lead to violence, forcing the military to come out to stage a coup again. We all want to avoid that.”

An emergency order imposed on Bangkok’s airports and Government House has empowered police to clear the areas, though Somchai has said the government won’t use violence against the protesters. About 750 flights a day can’t get in or out of Suvarnabhumi, Asia’s fourth-busiest airport with as many as 100,000 passengers a day, the airport operator’s data shows.

Possible Asean Postponement

Foreign Minister Sompong Amornvivat said today that Thailand may have to postpone a summit of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations scheduled for next month, Agence France- Presse reported, citing Sompong speaking on state-run NBT television station.

Sompong said it was his “personal comment” that the summit may have to be put off until March, even though it would affect the country financially and affect its image, AFP reported.

Somchai said Nov. 28 he intends to hold the meetings as scheduled Dec. 15-18. The government already moved the venue to Chiang Mai from Bangkok because of the protests there. Laos and Cambodia, both members of Asean, have said Thailand should reschedule the summit.

Negotiations Failed

Negotiations to clear demonstrators failed yesterday, and violence broke out when 500 protesters armed with steel bars stormed a 150-strong police checkpoint. Police officers jumped into vans and sped away after demonstrators attacked the vehicles and threw firecrackers.

Somchai said yesterday he was willing to negotiate with protesters, if they lifted demands for his resignation and the dissolution of the government. Police efforts last month to clear demonstrators killed one person and injured hundreds.

Early today, an explosion wounded 48 people at the compound, said Winner Dachpian, a spokesman for the protesters. Nine people were sent to hospital, with three in critical condition, he said. A bomb was thrown into the site, the TNN television news network reported. Similar blasts have occurred in recent weeks.

Thai Army Chief Anupong Paojinda last week called for early elections to end six months of deadly protests.

Fresh Elections

The People’s Alliance for Democracy, composed mostly of the Bangkok middle class, royalists and civil servants, accuses Somchai of being the proxy of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup by Anupong and other generals. The group has rejected calls for fresh elections and said it wouldn’t leave the airport until the government steps down.

“If you can’t manage the country you have to resign,” Phongsak Assakul, vice chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, said by phone during a 14-hour bus ride to Bangkok from Hat Yai in southern Thailand. “Let the elected parliamentarians form a new government. If that government can’t govern, then let’s go have another election.”

An election may return the ruling party to power. Parties linked to Thaksin have won four elections since 2001 on strong rural support for its platform of cheap health care and village loans. The protesters want a new political system that prevents the return of Thaksin’s allies by diluting rural votes.

“One possible way out is to find a neutral person who’s universally acceptable to be the new prime minister,” said Ajva Taulananda, the Thai Chamber of Commerce’s honorary chairman and vice chairman of Charoen Pokphand Group. “This way, we will see a break from the political squabbling,” he said in a phone interview.

Travelers Stranded

Suvarnabhumi’s closure has stranded thousands of travelers in the Thai capital. Repatriating them, and returning the 50,000 Thais stranded overseas, may cost 1 billion baht ($28 million) and take as long as a month, Deputy Prime Minister Olarn Chaiprawat said, Agence France-Presse reported yesterday.

“People are losing trust in the Thai people,” the Chamber of Commerce’s Phongsak said. “It really damages the tourist industry, not only hotels and airlines, but also restaurants, guided tours, lots of people.”

Thailand is allowing airlines to use a naval base in the east of the country to repatriate stranded travelers.

Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. warned of “chaotic” conditions and long lines at the military airfield.
The carrier, Hong Kong’s biggest, is one of about a dozen airlines using U-Tapao Airport, east of Bangkok near Pattaya. Japan Airlines Corp. and Singapore Airlines Ltd. were also using the facility, more than two hours away from Bangkok.

Airport Congestion

“There has been congestion because this airport wasn’t built to serve such a huge number of passengers,” Chaisak Ungsuwan, director general of the Air Transportation Department, said today. The airfield handled more than 100 flights yesterday, he said. Suvarnabhumi handles 600 daily flights.

The international airport in Bangkok will remain closed until Dec. 1, Airports of Thailand Pcl said yesterday.

Finance Minister Suchart Thadathamrongvej said the protests and airport closures may cause damage amounting to about 100 billion baht this quarter.

“The prolonged political gridlock will drag on our economy and create unemployment,” said Pramon, the Chamber of Commerce chairman. “We just hope that we can grow 3 percent next year, even though the hope is quite dim now.”


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