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Thai crisis shifts focus to king's speech

world Updated: Dec 04, 2008 09:54 IST

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Thailand's crippling political crisis shifted its focus on Thursday from Bangkok's gradually opening Suvarnabhumi airport to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who will address the nation on the eve of his 81st birthday.

The revered monarch, thrust into the centre of the political fray by the anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy's (PAD) persistent invocation of his name, is due to make his remarks on radio after 0900 GMT.

Regarded as semi-divine by many Thais, the king has intervened decisively in politics three times during his six decades on the throne, favouring variously democratic and military administrations.

His previous remarks during the three-year crisis have been nuanced and focused on the need for national unity, although his calls for clean government were widely read as a swipe at Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist prime minister ousted in a 2006 coup.

Even though Bangkok's main airports are gradually getting back to life after a week-long shutdown by PAD protesters, bringing hope to 230,000 stranded foreign tourists, the same cannot be said of the tourism and export-dependent economy.

The central bank slashed interest rates by a shock 100 basis points to 2.75 percent on Wednesday, reflecting the impact of the airport siege on an economy already feeling the effects of a global slowdown.

National carrier Thai Airways said it was operating 12 flights out of the 125,000 passenger-a-day Suvarnabhumi, including intercontinental services to Europe and Australia.

Budget operator AirAsia also announced a resumption of services on Friday.

"I have strong confidence that everything will be OK and will be back to normal in two days," airport general manager Serirat Prasutanond said on Wednesday as PAD officials swept up debris left by their sit-in, the latest stunt in a six-month campaign.

The day before, he said the airport would be shut until at least Dec 15 for security and computer systems checks.


Despite the return of relative normality, analysts said more trouble was in store after the hiatus of the king's birthday when parliament meets on Monday to select a replacement for Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, sacked by the courts this week.

Somchai's People Power Party (PPP), which the PAD accuse of being a front for the now exiled Thaksin, was dissolved in the same ruling but most of its rank-and-file members simply switched to another "shell" party.

It and the other five parties in the ruling coalition have more than enough numbers in parliament to form the next administration, an eventuality that is bound to cause the PAD to resume its street protests.

"I am sad that we are going," said Ranatip, 48, an unemployed office assistant told Reuters as she packed up her belongings at the PAD airport sit-in. "But I am ready to fight for my king and my country. I will come back as soon as I am needed."

With so many of the country's key institutions compromised, analysts say the fundamental stand-off will persist between Bangkok's royalist and military elite, and the forces of the rural and urban poor broadly aligned with Thaksin.

"Thailand remains locked in this structurally flawed system for the foreseeable future," said IHS Global Insight analyst Kristina Azmi. "The risk of civil unrest is growing and with it the accompanying risk of military intervention."