BANGKOK, THAILAND — Thailand's beleaguered Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat on Thursday declared a state of emergency around two Bangkok airports occupied by protesters but insisted he wanted a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
"I do not have any intention to hurt any members of the public," he said in announcing the targeted restrictions on civil liberties aimed at reopening the country's main international airport.
By declaring the state of emergency, the government can suspend civil liberties, ban public gatherings and take other measures to restore order without imposing broader restrictions that many Thais have feared.
Thousands of People's Alliance for Democracy demonstrators on Tuesday seized the newly built Suvarnabhumi Airport, one of the busiest airports in Asia, marooning thousands of foreign travelers.
Earlier Thursday, anti-government protesters also took control of the capital's Don Muang airport. As rumors of an impending coup spread, Somchai called an emergency Cabinet meeting.
In a nationally televised address Wednesday night, Somchai had rejected army chief Gen. Anupong Paochinda's call for the prime minister to dissolve parliament and hold new elections.
Public Health Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung told reporters after the Cabinet session that police would soon be assigned to clear out the thousands of protesters entrenched at the airports.
By shutting down the main gateway for visitors to Thailand, the protesters have damaged the tourism industry, the country's largest earner of foreign currency, just as passengers were arriving at the start of the peak holiday season.
The anti-government activists, some of whom were armed with golf clubs, sticks and metal rods when they stormed Suvarnabhumi's busy departure terminal, were bracing for potential clashes if police were ordered to evict them.
At Government House, where hundreds of demonstrators have camped out on the lawn since August, protest leaders reportedly warned their followers "this may be our last night."
Demonstrators there, and at the airports, were also told to remove their yellow T-shirts, a symbol of support for the People's Alliance for Democracy, or PAD, and put on others if they decided to leave the areas.
No time frame has been announced for the resumption of flights. At least one Thai Airways flight, from Los Angeles, reportedly landed at an air force base outside Bangkok on Wednesday.
Unable to land in Bangkok after returning from an Asian-Pacific leaders' summit in Peru on Tuesday night, the Thai prime minister had to summon his Cabinet to the northern city of Chiang Mai, about 350 miles north of the capital.
Somchai is the brother-in-law of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup. The anti-government alliance, which draws its chief support from the urban middle class and business leaders, regards Somchai as a proxy for the exiled Thaksin.
Thaksin recently vowed to return to politics in Thailand even though the Supreme Court ruled last month that the billionaire politician should be jailed for two years on a corruption conviction.
After the meeting, government spokesman Nattawut Saikura Saikura denied that the government had intended to remove the army chief and asked members of the military "to remain in their barracks."
The Nation, an English-language daily newspaper, said the comments led to a deluge of telephone calls asking about a possible military coup. The rumors prompted government workers to be sent home, worsening public anxiety, according to the Nation.
In addition to the takeover of the airports, Bangkok's police headquarters and parliament have been besieged in recent weeks. In Chiang Mai on Wednesday, a pro-government group allegedly attacked a PAD radio station, and there were unconfirmed reports that one man was killed and several people assaulted in an attack on the city's local airport.
"This is the reckoning. What happens next will be cataclysmic -- the buildup to the end of Thailand as we know it," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, author of an editorial in Thursday's Bangkok Post titled "Going All the Way" and a professor at Chulalongkorn University. "The specter of widespread civil strife has never been more real to me in Thailand."
According to the professor, the reopening of the airports would be an essential step but not the end of Thailand's political uncertainty, as rival camps of anti-government activists in yellow shirts challenge government supporters in red shirts.
"In the coming days, the question mark we must address are the clashes between the red shirts and the yellow shirts and the king's twilight -- that's the bigger picture," he said, referring to the nation's ailing and aging monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Thailand's sagging economy will probably get a boost from the reopening of Bangkok's airfields. Suvarnabhumi is the 18th-busiest airport in the world and a cornerstone of Thailand's $4.2-billion tourist industry.
The airport closures "are seriously affecting tourism and a sizable portion of international trade: fruits and all kinds of perishable products. It's been very difficult, and Thailand's reputation was damaged as well," said economist Supavud Saicheua, head of research with Phatra Securities.
According to Supavud, travelers will be tentative about coming back to Thailand by air. He estimates it may take three months for the economy to recover. Thailand's gross domestic product is growing at about 4% this year, its lowest rate since 2005, and is trending downward, he said.
Foreign investment is also down in 2008, but Supavud chalks that up to political "noise" and a poor global economy.
"There's nothing wrong with the economy at all," he said. "It's the politics that have to be resolved before we move forward."