Coup fears rise after Thai PM sacks police chief
The Thai prime minister sacked the country’s police chief last night after security forces failed to evict anti-government demonstrators from Bangkok’s two airports, leaving the country all but cut off and thousands of overseas travellers stranded.
Somchai Wongsawat’s decision to remove police general Pacharawat Wongsuwan was another sign of the deepening tensions between the government and the security forces that have raised fears of another coup.
But as the airport demonstrators were given an ultimatum to leave, riot police were seen gathering at Suvarnabhumi international, suggesting that they were preparing to clear the terminal, which had been shut down for a fourth day.
In a move to rescue thousands of travellers stranded by the closures, passengers were being bussed from the nearby resort town of Pattaya to the Vietnam war-era naval airbase of U-Tapao, south of Bangkok, where 60 flights departed yesterday.
Several Asian airlines were planning further flights today to rescue staff and passengers.
The Thai tourist authority hoped the aircraft might also bring in new arrivals for the start of the tourist high season, though the capacity of U-Tapao will be a fraction of that of the main airports.
The removal of the police chief “as a result of his performance during this crisis” suggested that the four-day standoff between the government and protesters from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) might be moving towards a conclusion.
As darkness fell last night PAD “guards” clad in hardhats and goggles brandishing iron bars, continued to man a razor-wire barricade checkpoint on the five-lane airport approach road. Just a few hundred metres away 200 police with batons and shields gathered and scores of ambulances were lined up, suggesting the security forces were preparing an assault that might turn bloody.
The recently appointed police chief, an opponent of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was deposed in a coup in 2006, had joined Thailand’s armed services chiefs last month on television, suggesting Somchai should step down.
Despite the tough stand, the prime minister tried in another national address yesterday to reassure the public that a softly-softly approach would be used to clear the airports. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Officials will use gentle measures to deal with them.”
Earlier in the day police began negotiations by phone with the protesters’ leaders, who are demanding that Somchai’s government step down unconditionally. Officers hinted of sterner measures if the demonstrators did not leave quietly.
“We are asking them to allow the airport to resume operations,” said Lieutenant General Suchart Muenkaew, the chief negotiator. “We will keep talking, but if it fails we will take other steps. The last step will be to disperse them.”
Somchai had declared a state of emergency on Thursday evening at Suvarnabhumi and Bangkok’s second airport, Don Muang, leading to expectations that police and some military units were on the brink of evicting the protesters by force.
Yet after a night when rumours swept the Suvarnabhumi protesters’ ranks that a police invasion was imminent, the government backed off and said it would seek to get them out in a “peaceful manner”.
A similar emergency rule order declared by the previous prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, in September to clear the demonstrators occupying the grounds of Government House also fell flat when the military refused to intervene.
The inaction after the latest emergency rule declaration raised questions about whether Somchai was in total control, a suspicion amplified by his decision to remain in the northern city of Chiang Mai among his bedrock supporters because of tensions with the military.
The sacking of the police chief was clearly an attempt to wrest back the initiative. It prompted renewed speculation that the prime minister would also remove army chief Anupong Paochinda because of his criticism of Somchai, a scenario categorically denied earlier.
But the new tougher stance drew a stern response from PAD, whose members said they were prepared to “fight to the death” if they did not get their way. “We are ready to defend ourselves against any government’s operations to get us out of those places,” a spokesman said.