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Wednesday, November 26, 2008
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Thai govt 'goes into hiding' amid protest

The Thai government insisted yesterday it was "fully functional" but refused to disclose where officials were working to avoid provoking more protests with anti-government activists who have vowed to bring the administration to a standstill.

Spokesman Nattawut Saikau indicated the Thai government had effectively gone into hiding to avoid thousands of protesters who surrounded the prime minister's temporary headquarters at Bangkok's domestic airport and embarked on a cat-and-mouse chase to block their meetings.

Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat was in Peru for a summit of Pacific Rim leaders and not expected back until Wednesday. But when he returns he will confront the latest twist in Thailand's political crisis and the need to find a new office space.

Protesters seeking Somchai's resignation have occupied his Bangkok headquarters, known as Government House, since Aug. 26, forcing him to relocate to a makeshift office in the VIP area of the former international airport.

Thousands of protesters from the People's Alliance for Democracy, or PAD, surrounded the government's makeshift offices at Don Muang airport Tuesday, a day after blockading Parliament and forcing the postponement of an important parliamentary session.

Protest leaders said their goal is to block the government from meeting whenever and wherever that may be.

"We'll protest until there is no Cabinet meeting," said a protest leader, Somsak Kosaisuk. "We'll interrupt their every attempt to ruin the country further."

The weekly Cabinet meeting is usually held Tuesdays but was changed to Wednesday because of Somchai's absence.

A few thousands protesters marched later Tuesday from the airport to the nearby Thai army headquarters, where they believed a government meeting was taking place.

Nattawut said he would not confirm where the government was meeting.

"The government is fully functional and continues to work as usual but we cannot disclose where the government is working right now because it will provoke PAD and might cause a lot of trouble," he said, speaking by telephone.

He added that the government "intends to negotiate with PAD to get the temporary government house back in a few days."

The protesters, seeking the resignation of what they allege is a corrupt government, camped overnight at Don Muang airport.

Nattawut said more than 1,000 government employees evacuated the offices at Don Muang airport Monday afternoon.

The airport's VIP section was about half a mile (1 kilometre) from the main passenger terminal and protesters showed no immediate sign of trying to disrupt travel.

However, travellers were advised to arrive early for flights, and traffic was expected to be heavier than usual because of the protest, the airport's deputy director, Viroj Ewcharoen, said in a statement.

Tuesday's activities marked the second day of what the People's Alliance for Democracy calls its "final showdown" with the government.

Thousands of protesters blockaded Parliament on Monday and forced it to postpone a special joint session of both houses. Smaller rallies were held at the Finance Ministry and other government offices.

Thailand's political crisis began in 2006, when a similar campaign against then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra led to a him being deposed by a military coup for alleged corruption and abuse of power. But further efforts to cripple Thaksin's political machine failed, and his political allies won a December 2007 election.

The alliance then resumed its street protests and finally stormed Government House on Aug. 26, vowing not to leave until they have forced Thaksin's allies from power. They accuse Somchai of acting as a proxy for Thaksin, who is his brother-in-law.

Police, under strict orders to avoid the use of force, exercised restraint Monday as demonstrators pushed past them, sometimes showering them with expletives in an apparent effort to provoke a violent response that might discredit the authorities. There were only minor scuffles Monday with protesters at Parliament.

Thailand's economy, already struggling amid the global downturn, has been hit hard by the political turmoil. The state planning agency said Monday it grew at its slowest pace in more than three years this past quarter.

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