State Of Emergency Declared In Thailand

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The beleaguered prime minister of Thailand has declared a state of emergency after days of civil protests that have shut down Bangkok's two airports. The declaration paves the way for the government to order police and military to force an end to protesters' occupation of the airports.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Now to Thailand. In the capital of Bangkok, it's no flights in and no flights out. Anti-government protestors are continuing their occupation of the city's airports. The protestors are demanding that the democratically elected government resign. They say it is corrupt. Today the prime minister went on television to declare a state of emergency at the two airports. NPR's Michael Sullivan joins us now from Bangkok. Michael, what does a state of emergency in this case mean for these protestors?

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: I think it's a little unclear what it means. I mean, in theory it gives the security forces a great deal of license in dealing with these protestors, but at the same time - I mean, three months ago, when this whole thing started, a state of emergency was declared when these protestors occupied Government House, the prime minister's office. And the army simply declined to intervene. The police are in charge of restoring order here at the two airports here. They're going to be helped by the air force. They're going to be helped by the navy, the prime minister said. The army was conspicuously absent in that.

So I don't know if this is going to be a repeat of what we saw in September. But I also think that this is a little different than September, because in September they occupied the Government House. OK, we can just sort of firewall that off. The tourists don't see it. The rest of the world doesn't see it. When you take over the international airport and thousands of travelers are detained, that gets people's attention. So they have to do something. And what that something is, we don't quite know yet.

NORRIS: From what I understand, the main airport there is quite beautiful. It was meant to be sort of a symbol of pride to greet visiting tourists when they arrived. What was the scene like there?

SULLIVAN: Well, the scenes at the airport were chaotic yesterday. I mean, there you had thousands of people who couldn't get out because many more thousands of PAD demonstrators, the People's Alliance for Democracy demonstrators, protestors, were outside, and they weren't letting people in and out. And most of those people who were trapped there at the airport yesterday are now gone. In fact, like 95 percent of them are now gone. They're back here in hotels in Bangkok waiting to figure out when they can get out of here.

NORRIS: Michael, I just want to go back to these protestors' demands. They want the prime minister out. They say that he's a proxy for the former prime minister who was forced out in a coup two years ago. What is the possibility that we might be looking at the beginning of yet another coup in this country?

SULLIVAN: Look, if you believe a lot of people here in the capital today, I mean many, many people are nervous there's going to be another coup. And the problem is the last time around, two years ago, that they got rid of Thaksin, they rewrote the constitution, they had new elections, and in fact Thaksin's political party reconstituted, won those elections, and is now in power again. The current prime minister is actually Thaksin's brother-in-law.

So the military is very, very wary of actually staging another coup at this point because the last one didn't go too well. And they don't want to be seen as having this one not go well. They also don't want to be seen as the people that are the heavies in this case because the Thai military has been the heavies in the past year, and they don't want that to happen again. So they're reluctant to intervene. That's why they were reluctant in September. That's why I think they'll be reluctant now, which is why the prime minister, Somchai, today said that the police would be in charge of trying to clear these protestors from the two airports.

NORRIS: We're speaking to NPR's Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. Michael, thanks so much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome.

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