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Thai opposition warns of more protests

With the premier out, demonstrators leave airports, but they seem set to jump back into the fray if called.

December 03, 2008|Paul Watson | Watson is a Times staff writer.

BANGKOK, THAILAND — Before thousands of anti-government demonstrators could finish packing up their giant woks, folding cots, golf clubs and other articles of airport occupation today, their leader was warning of the possibility of more crippling protests.

Sondhi Limthongkul, the media mogul who heads the anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy, warned that he's ready to call demonstrators back to the streets at any moment despite the resignation of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat after a court order to dissolve his governing party.

"The PAD will return if another proxy government is formed or anyone tries to amend the constitution or the law to whitewash some politicians or to subdue the monarch's authority," Sondhi told cheering supporters.

Anti-government demonstrators who during the last week caused two Thai airports to shut down, leaving hundreds of thousands of travelers stranded, celebrated Somchai's resignation, singing and waving the country's red, white and blue flag as they promised to end their occupation of the facilities.

The Nov. 25 seizure of Suvarnabhumi Airport, a $3.8-billion glass and steel symbol of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's largesse, is just the most dramatic in half a year of protests that have divided this country. Last week, authorities also closed the Don Muang domestic airport out of fear that protesters who stormed the terminal building might harm passengers and aircraft.

The prime minister's decision to quickly step down Tuesday, after the Constitutional Court banned him from politics for five years and ordered the dissolution of his party, hasn't resolved the fundamental dispute facing the nation.

The demonstrators regard Somchai as a puppet of Thaksin, his brother-in-law. Thaksin was overthrown in a coup in 2006, fled overseas and was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison on corruption charges.

The opposition says the National Assembly put Somchai in office in September at Thaksin's bidding.

But in elections dating back to Thaksin's first landslide victory in 2001, the majority of Thais have shown time and again that they like the policy shift he led, offering more help for the poor, such as universal healthcare, and farmland for more than 1 million landless families.

Sondhi, who was once in business with Thaksin, uses his satellite TV channel, a newspaper, a radio station, a website and other media outlets to maximize the power of a political minority, based mainly in Bangkok and southern Thailand. He draws most of his support from business leaders, the middle class and others in the urban elite.

Many here believe Sondhi's well-funded operation is secretly supported by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a revered figure in Thai society. Sondhi's protesters wear yellow as a symbol of their royalist leanings.

People who found themselves shut out of the political patronage system formed the People's Alliance for Democracy in 2006. They have been helped by rulings from the Constitutional Court, but haven't been able to change the fact that the majority of Thais support the politicians that the PAD's leaders despise.

When the Constitutional Court ordered Somchai's party and two allied parties dissolved Tuesday, it wasn't the first time that activist judges had intervened in Thai politics.

Last year, the Constitutional Court shut down Thaksin's Thais Love Thais party and banned 11 of its former officials from politics for five years for bribing smaller parties to run candidates in opposition strongholds to split the vote.

Thailand was under military rule at the time, after the coup that ousted Thaksin, a billionaire. The overthrow won the approval of King Bhumibol.

But many parliament members from Thaksin's dissolved Thais Love Thais party, which he founded in 1998, simply shifted to the allied People's Power Party, headed by former TV chef Samak Sundaravej.

The Constitutional Court ruled in September that Samak had to resign because he had violated conflict of interest laws by appearing as a guest host on two TV cooking shows while he was prime minister.

Somchai, a former judge, replaced Samak as a caretaker prime minister, and was later elected by parliament. And the PAD protesters turned up the pressure to topple him.

Thaksin recently said he wanted to return to Thailand, and political life.

The court ruling bans Somchai and 59 executives of his People's Power Party and two coalition partners from politics for five years for electoral fraud in elections a year ago.

That includes 24 members of parliament who must resign from their seats. But even before the widely expected court ruling, Somchai's officials had created a new party, called Puea Thai, and invited members of the dissolved organizations to join.

Somchai seemed relieved Tuesday to be leaving the fray.

"It is not a problem," Somchai told reporters in the northern city of Chiang Mai, where he had remained since returning to the country amid rumors of an impending coup last week.

Most of the protesters were gone by noon, and airport authority officials said partial service might resume at Suvarnabhumi Airport by midnight Thursday.

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paul.watson@latimes.com

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