BANGKOK, Thailand – Thailand’s government backed off today from its threat to forcibly remove protesters occupying Bangkok’s two airports in their campaign to oust the prime minister, saying police would avoid violence and attempt to negotiate.
Thousands of tourists have been left stranded since anti-government protesters occupied the main international Suvarnabhumi airport Tuesday and the smaller Don Muang airport Wednesday. Both airports are now shut down and the capital cut off to air traffic.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat declared a state of emergency at the airports, authorizing police to take back the terminals. The order appeared to indicate that a crackdown was imminent against the members of the People’s Alliance for Democracy.
But eight hours later, government spokesman Nattawut Sai-Kau said police have been instructed to get the protesters out of airports “as soon as possible” in a “peaceful manner.”
The new soft line, and the government’s failure to send in security forces so far, has raised doubts about whether Somchai has the support of security forces and the army, a powerful institution that has traditionally played a key role in the country’s politics.
Army commander Gen. Anupong Paochinda has been neutral in the political turmoil, and even suggested that Somchai call new elections, triggering speculation that a military coup could take place.
In an address to the nation Thursday night to announce the emergency, Somchai said that navy and air force personnel would help the police, but was vague about any participation by the army, saying only the government would also ask the army “to help take care of the people.”
The state of emergency also empowers the government to suspend some civil liberties, including restricting the movement of people and prohibiting mass assembly.