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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Emergency Declared at Thai Airports

BANGKOK — Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat declared a state of emergency at Bangkok’s two commercial airports on Thursday and instructed the police and some military units to deal with protesters occupying the facilities.

The order, announced in a nationally televised address, came after a cabinet meeting in the northern city of Chiang Mai, a location apparently chosen to avoid confrontations with protesters, who in Bangkok are occupying the prime minister’s offices as well as the airports.

“It is necessary for me to announce an emergency decree in some areas,” Mr. Somchai said. “There is no intention to harm anyone.”

He assigned police, air force and naval units to “take care” of the situation. It was unclear whether this meant they are charged with clearing protestors out of the facilities.

Amid rumors of a military coup, a government spokesman instructed troops to “stay in their barracks.”

The closure of Bangkok’s second airport early Thursday severed the last remaining commercial air links to the Thai capital. Until Wednesday, airlines were operating domestic flights out of Don Muang airport, Bangkok’s oldest airfield.

Protesters have vowed to keep the airports shut until the government steps down.

Government supporters who have formed a type of auxiliary, known as the red shirts, said they were growing impatient with the protesters. Weera Musikapong, one of the leaders of the group said in a news conference that the “best way out” of the crisis was to follow the law. “But if the government does not act today or tomorrow the red shirt group and the people must come out and do something.”

Protesters have clashed with pro-government forces on several occasions in recent months, leaving at least two people dead and dozens injured.

Thailand’s tourism minister, Weerasak Kohsurat, said the government would soon begin flying thousands of stranded tourists out of the country using military bases near the Thai capital.

Tourists would be flown by Thai Airways to Singapore or Malaysia for connecting flights, The Associated Press reported.

Government officials also said Thursday they would allow commercial airlines to use one of the military airports, U-Tapao.

Used by the United States military during the Vietnam War, U-Tapao can handle only a fraction of the daily average of 100,000 passengers who flew in and out of Suvarnabhumi International Airport last year.

U-Tapao’s terminal has the capacity to hold 400 people and the parking lot has about 100 spaces. The airport is about 120 miles from Bangkok, a two-hour drive.

The seizure of Bangkok’s airports is radical even by the standards of Thailand’s tempestuous political past. Despite frequent military coups and changes of government in past decades, the day-to-day running of Thailand’s bureaucracy had been largely unaffected until now. The airports operated with little interruption during a military coup in 2006, and unlike many of its neighbors Thailand has maintained reliable service in key areas such as electricity and health care despite political turmoil.

But with the closure of the airports this week and occupation of the prime minister’s office since August, politics is now directly interfering with many facets of life in Thailand.

The country’s foreign minister, Sompong Amornwiwat, said the government is considering postponing a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations scheduled for next month because of the political crisis, Reuters reported.

Cargo services at Suvarnabhumi airport, a major hub for Southeast Asia, have completely ceased, a major blow for Thai and foreign companies that use the country as an export base.

“The protesters have basically closed down the country,” said Ruth Banomyong, an associate professor at Thammasat Business School who is one of the region’s leading experts in logistics.

“Thailand was never considered as a very risky country,” he said. “I don’t think companies would have prepared for this.”

Thailand is well integrated into a regional network of just-in-time electronics manufacturing, where businesses keep down costs by maintaining a bare minimum of inventories. If the airports remain closed, assembly lines in Japan and China may run out of the semiconductors, disk drives and other components manufactured in Thailand.

Mr. Ruth estimates that electronics manufacturers keep around three to five days of inventory.

“This idea of Bangkok and Suvarnabhumi being a cargo hub — they can drop it down the drain now,” he said.

Thailand last year exported about $40 billion in electronics and computer components. Leading electronics manufacturing including Fujitsu, Seagate, Philips, and LG have factories in the country.

The airport closures may also prove dangerous for those in need of urgent medical care.

Neighboring countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos rely on Thailand for health care because Bangkok has some of the best hospitals in the region. The closure of the airports has shut off the urgent provision of medicines and medical machinery from abroad.

“For agriculture and electronics it’s a commercial loss,” said Voratat Tantimongkolsuk, deputy director of operations at CTI, one of the largest freight forwarders in Thailand. “But this is also about people’s lives. We import a lot of medical equipment from other countries.”

Mr. Voratat is proposing to his clients that they send their shipments by truck to Kuala Lumpur International Airport, adding about three days to the shipment time. But this route may not be viable for the most sensitive products.

Last year Suvarnabhumi airport handled import and exports averaging a total of 2,900 tons a day.

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