Thai PM banned from politics as court disbands ruling party

Tuesday December 2 2008

Anti-government protesters celebrate as they

Anti-government protesters celebrate as they hold flowers during a rally at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi international airport December 2, 2008. Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat was banned from politics for five years. Photo/REUTERS 

BANGKOK, Tuesday

Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat was banned from politics for five years and his party disbanded on today, plunging the country deeper into chaos and raising fears of a violent backlash by government supporters.

Party members vowed to “move on” and vote for a new prime minister on December 8, setting the stage for another flashpoint in Thailand’s three-year old political crisis.

First deputy prime minister Chavarat Charnvirakul would take over as interim prime minister, a government spokesman said.

The Constitutional Court also disbanded two other parties in Somchai’s six-party coalition for vote fraud in the 2007 general election and barred their leaders from politics for five years.

The rulings raised the risk of clashes between red-shirted government allies, who rallied outside the court as a judge read out verdict, and thousands of the yellow-shirted anti-government protesters blockading the capital’s two airports.

Hours before the court decisions, one person was killed and 22 wounded after a grenade was fired at protesters besieging the domestic Don Muang airport.

There was no immediate reaction to the court verdict from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (Pad), who invaded Bangkok’s two main airports last week in a “final battle” to topple Mr Somchai.

The Pad had refused to negotiate until Mr Somchai steps down. They accuse him of being a puppet of his brother-in-law, ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has intervened in previous political crises during his six decades on the throne, made no mention of the country’s current troubles during a short speech at a Trooping the Colour military parade in Bangkok.

The annual ceremony, in which the king speaks about the need for military probity, was a picture of tradition and serenity in marked contrast to the chaos elsewhere in Bangkok.

Around 250,000 foreign tourists have been stranded by the week-long sit-ins at Don Muang and the bigger Suvarnabhumi international airport, which will stay closed until December 15, eating into the key Christmas holiday season.

“The rally has caused massive damage to the country. We will try to open the airport as soon as possible,” Serirat Prasutanond, acting head of Airports of Thailand said.

However, there was good news for the air cargo industry, which has ground to a halt and cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars. A cargo flight bound for Kuala Lumpur left Suvarnabhumi today, a welcome sight for a tourist- and export-dependent economy already suffering from the global financial crisis.

A senior airport official said earlier cargo flights could resume as soon as shippers and airlines were ready.

Finance Minister Suchart Thada-Thamrongvech told Reuters yesterday the economy might be flat next year, or grow by just 1-2 per cent, after earlier growth forecasts of between 4-5 per cent.

The travel chaos worried neighbours due to attend a regional summit in Thailand in two weeks, prompting the government to postpone the meeting until March 2009, a spokesman said.

The Thai baht edged up against the dollar and the stock market rose on optimism that political unrest might subside after the ruling, but shares soon fell back again.

All six parties in the coalition government vowed to stick together and seek a parliamentary vote for a new prime minister on December 8, setting the stage for another potentially violent confrontation in the country’s three-year-old political crisis.

Lawmakers who escaped the political ban would move to new “shell” parties to form another ruling coalition, a former minister said.

“The verdict comes as no surprise to all of us,” said Jakrapob Penkair, a close associate of Mr Thaksin, who was removed in a bloodless 2006 coup and is now in exile.

“But our members are determined to move on and we will form a government again out of the majority that we believe we still have,” he told Reuters.

Such talk is likely to harden the Pad’s resolve, a day after they began reinforcing their airport blockades with thousands of supporters from Government House, ending a three-month occupation of the prime minister’s offices.

Only a handful of Pad members remained at Government House today, as a crane removed the shells of six buses used to barricade surrounding roads.

Bunkers of sandbags and car tyres stacked two metres (six feet) high were everywhere, beside lines of makeshift tarpaulin tents. The carefully manicured lawns and gardens were invisible beneath a sea of wooden pallets and cardboard sleeping mats.

Pad supporters left with no hint of remorse or regret. (Reuters)