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Thai political crisis heightens with new rallies

At least 51 anti-government protesters are wounded in several explosions, raising fears of widening confrontations in a standoff that has strangled Thailand's economy.
Anti-government protesters at a rally at Suvarnabhumi international airport in Bangkok on Saturday.
Anti-government protesters at a rally at Suvarnabhumi international airport in Bangkok on Saturday. Vincent Thian / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Government supporters converged on the capital on Sunday, in a counter to rival protesters who seized control of Bangkok's two airports and forced the prime minister to run the country from afar.

Neither the army nor Thailand's revered king have stepped in to resolve the crisis — or offered the firm backing that Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat needs to resolve the leadership vacuum.

The problem runs deeper than the airport closures, which have stranded up to 100,000 travelers, strangled the key tourism industry and affected plane schedules worldwide. Political violence has added to the sense of drift bordering on anarchy that pervades the country's administration.

At least 51 injured
Explosions on Sunday hit the prime minister's compound, which protesters from the People's Alliance for Democracy have held since August, an anti-government television station, and a road near the main entrance to the occupied domestic airport. At least 51 people were injured, officials said.

No one claimed responsibility, but Suriyasai Katasila, a spokesman for the protest group, blamed the government.

Afterward, senior protest leader Chamlong Srimuang met with Bangkok police chief Lt. Gen. Suchart Muankaew. The two agreed to have police and protesters jointly patrol protest sites at the prime minister's office and Don Muang domestic airport.

"It was not a negotiation to end the protest. We discussed how to improve the security situation by patrolling together," Chamlong told reporters.

The alliance says it will not give up until Somchai resigns, accusing him of being a puppet of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the alliance's original target. Thaksin, who is Somchai's brother-in-law, was deposed in a 2006 military coup and has fled the country to escape corruption charges.

Thousands of government supporters wearing red shirts, headbands and bandanas joined a Sunday rally against the protest alliance. Some danced and clapped to music blaring from loudspeakers. They have adopted red to distinguish themselves from their yellow-garbed rivals.

"This is a movement against anarchical force and the people behind it," government spokesman Nattawut Sai-Kua told The Associated Press. "They want anarchy so that the army is forced to intervene and stage a coup."

No plans to oust Somchai
But the army, which overthrew Thaksin among other previous coups, says it has no plans to oust Somchai. Still, the military's failure to back up Somchai's efforts to restore order give the impression it alone will decide how the situation will be resolved.

Also distancing himself from the crisis has been revered 80-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who as a constitutional monarch plays no open role in politics but who has healed social fractures in the past.

"No one else can fix this. The country is so divided. The only uniting figure we have is the king. If he tells both sides to step back, they will," said 36-year-old coffee shop owner Natta Siritanond.

Nattawut, the government spokesman, denied rumors that Somchai had left the country, saying he was operating out of the northern city of Chiang Mai and traveling to Nakhon Phanom province, a northeastern province 600 kilometers (370 miles) from Bangkok.

Members of People's Alliance for Democracy overran Suvarnabhumi airport, the country's main international gateway, last Tuesday. They seized the domestic airport a day later, severing the capital from all commercial air traffic and daring the government to evict them.

Somchai declared a state of emergency, but security forces have so far failed to move on the protesters.

Deep political and social divisions
The supporters of the People's Alliance for Democracy are largely middle-class citizens who say Thailand's electoral system is susceptible to vote-buying and argue that the rural majority in the north and the northeast — the Thaksin camp's political base — is not sophisticated enough to cast ballots responsibly.

They have proposed discarding the one-man, one-vote system in favor of appointing most legislators, fostering resentment among rural voters.

"They act like they are the only ones who own the country," said a red-clad Nuam Pansee, 42 who traveled with 40 other people from her village in Yasothorn province, 440 kilometers (270 miles) northeast of Bangkok to attend the pro-government rally. "We need to come out and show that we don't agree."

The social and political divisions have slipped into deadly violence. So far, six people have been killed in bomb attacks, clashes with police and street battles between government opponents and supporters.

Eighty-eight planes had been parked at Suvarnabhumi since protesters forced operations to cease. Airport officials announced that 18 planes left without passengers Sunday so they could resume flying, with more expected.

Single X-ray machine
Some airlines were using an airport at the U-Tapao naval base, about 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Bangkok. But authorities there were overwhelmed with hundreds of passengers cramming into the small facility, trying to get their bags scanned through a single X-ray machine.

"There was pushing and shouting and we couldn't get in the front door," said Veena Banerjee of India, trying for the second day to get on a plane.

The Federation of Thai Industries has estimated the takeover of the airports is costing the country $57 million to $85 million a day. Some of its members have suggested they might withhold taxes in protest.

The Constitutional Court is expected to rule soon on whether three parties in the governing coalition, including Somchai's People's Power Party, committed electoral fraud.

If found guilty, the parties would be dissolved immediately, and executive members including Somchai would be barred from politics for five years.