Saturday, August 30, 2008

Political crisis plunges Thai transport into chaos

By Stéphane Hanot | Aug 30, 2008
BANGKOK, Thailand (eTN) - The latent political crisis about the controversial Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, considered by many Thais as a “proxy” of previous Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has translated for now more than 100 days by demonstrations from the political movement “People’s Alliance for Democracy” (PAD).

The demonstrations began peacefully, but have turned increasingly to confrontation with the Samak government, asking for the prime minister’s resignation. With violence spreading out in the past few days, Thailand transportation sector is now the first affected by political unrest.

The closure of the roads leading to the Southern airports of Hat yai, Krabi and Phuket forced the government to finally close the three airports to air traffic on Friday late afternoon. If flights to and out of Bangkok are not affected, the situation remains, however, confused in the Southern part of the country. According to latest news from local televisions, Phuket was still close on Saturday with over 50 flights canceled but Hat Hay and Krabi reopened to traffic.

Hundreds of passengers have been blocked on Friday and Saturday. The situation in air transport could become worst as Thai Airways International Labor Union asked its 15,000 members to launch a strike in sign of solidarity with the protesters. Despite the fact that strikes are forbidden in public companies, employees are automatically entitled to a two-day leave for illness. TG labor union already has threatened to ask to all 25,000 airline staff to stop working if the government will continue to use force against PAD protesters.

Some 250 rail workers already stopped working on Friday, paralyzing passengers’ traffic in the country. Thai Transport Minister Santi Prompat asked the SRT (Thailand’s national rails) to immediately start negotiations to restore services on rail. On Friday and Saturday close to 80 routes (with some 39 to the South)were disrupted nationwide in the rail sector with many services totally suspended under further notice to the Northern and Northeastern part of the country. SRT estimates that the two-day disruption might already cost the state-run company an estimated US$15 million in lost revenues.

PAD protesters in Northern Thailand also have threatened to shut down Lampang Mae Moh power, near Chiang Mai. More actions could follow from workers in the public sector of electricity and water supply. The situation remained however quiet in Bangkok main business and entertainment districts throughout Saturday with only a few sporadic slowdown by the BTS Skytrain.

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej had an audience by late Saturday with the king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, to discuss the political situation. The king’s intervention will certainly help to resolve rapidly Thailand’s crisis.

The Thai government has since declared a state of emergency in Bangkok. As of today, the clash between pro-government and anti-government groups has caused the death of at least one person and injured dozens.

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