Thailand’s Prime Minister on Friday removed the head of the police force as his administration struggles to rise to the challenge posed by anti-government protesters who have occupied the country’s main international airport since the start of this week.
The removal of General Patcharawat Wongsuwanl underlines the uncertain loyalty of a number of key figures in the security forces supposedly at the command of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat.
No reason was given for General Patcharawat’s move to a non-active role in the prime minister’s office, but he had been passed over when Mr Somchai appointed one of his juniors to head the task force to deal with the protests.
Mr Somchai declared a limited state of emergency around the captured airports on Thursday night, a move that clears the way for the police to use force to disperse the protesters if needed, but he says he is looking for a less confrontational solution.
"The government does not want to trigger any violence or casualties, so to implement the law under international practice, as of now negotiations are under way," Mr Somchai said on Friday afternoon. He said the whole process, including the eviction if necessary, would be broadcast to show that no excess force was being used.
Attempts at negotiation are expected to start in earnest on Saturday, but even if they are successful it will take some time before Suvarnabhumi Airport or the domestic airport at Don Muang, reopen for business.
Suvarnabhumi normally handles more than 100,000 passengers a day, and Weerasak Kowsurat, the tourism minister, estimated that there is a backlog of some 90,000 tourists who have been unable to leave since the airport was shut down on Tuesday night.
Airlines have started emergency evacuation flights from a naval airbase southeast of Bangkok to try and relieve some of the pressure.
The protesters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, for whom the airport take over marked a substantial escalation in their campaign to force Mr Somchai to resign, say they will not leave while he is still in office.
But they are coming under increasing pressure. Much of the Bangkok-based media had until Tuesday supported their cause, but many have now turned against time, citing the economic cost of their change of tactics.
Economic data for October released on Friday painted a bleak picture for an economy that depends on exports for 70 per cent of its income. Exports grew 4.7 per cent year on year, the slowest rate for 6 years; private investment, consumption and manufacturing all showed clear signs of rapid slowing.
In Bangkok, Kasikorn Bank released a downbeat research note entitled “The beginning of the end of the good times”, in which it predicted a worst case scenario of economic growth of just 2.5 per cent next year, well below the 5.5 per cent average for this decade, and two percentage points lower than the central bank’s current predictions.