BANGKOK, Thailand – Protesters occupying Bangkok’s two airports braced for a raid Thursday night after Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat declared a limited state of emergency authorizing police to take back the terminals.
Meanwhile, rumors swept the city that the military would instead stage a coup to end the monthslong standoff between the People’s Alliance for Democracy and the elected government, which the alliance has vowed to topple.
Thousands of tourists have been stranded since Tuesday, when protesters overtook the airport and flights in and out of the capital were grounded. The group first seized Suvarnabhumi International Airport, then the smaller Don Muang Airport on Wednesday.
Somchai did not say when authorities would move in, but even before his announcement, protesters donned goggles and helmets, and first-aid stations handed out surgical masks in anticipation of a police raid. The group’s “guards” were patrolling the area with slingshots and metal batons. Many also carried concealed handguns.
Speculation that the military would stage a coup intensified after Thailand’s powerful army commander Gen. Anupong Paochinda suggested Wednesday that Somchai call new elections, and the prime minister rejected the idea. The whispers were further fueled by press reports Thursday about tank movements, which the military later said were only a training exercise.
In September 2006, the military ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a bloodless coup after months of protests by the alliance. The group says Somchai, who is Thaksin’s brother-in-law, is merely the former leader’s puppet.
They accuse Thaksin and his allies of corruption and abuse of power. Thaksin is in exile, a fugitive from a conviction for violating a conflict-of-interest law.
The protests, which gathered pace three months ago when demonstrators overran the prime minister’s offices, have paralyzed the government, battered the stock market, spooked foreign investors and dealt a serious blow to the tourism industry.
The state of emergency, which is limited to areas around the two airports, empowers the government to suspend some civil liberties, including restricting the movement of people and prohibiting mass assembly.