Thousands of Britons were trapped in Thailand last night as mobs protesting against the country's 'corrupt' government laid siege to airports in tourist hot spots. Some 15,000 people were turned away from the airport on the holiday island of Phuket after protesters from the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) stormed the runway and terminals.
Stranded passengers had to carry their bags through cordons to a nearby road where they were forced to hail cabs to take them back to their resorts. The chaos has sparked concerns that thousands of children will now miss the start of the British school term.
The airports at Krabi, now rivalling Phuket as Thailand's No 1 tourist spot, was also closed, as was the airport at Haad Yai in the south. Last night demonstrators were also heading for Surat Thani airport, around three hours north of Phuket. 'We want to bring government corruption to the attention of the world,' said a PAD spokesman.
Having spent their holiday cash, many tourists were wondering how they would get home and find accommodation in the interim. The Tourist Authority of Thailand has asked hoteliers to give stranded tourists discounted or free accommodation, but almost all those from Britain have lost connections on to London which they booked months in advance. Last night many tried to make their connections by bus, minibus and taxi in a 13- hour road trip to Bangkok, but PAD said they were also setting up road blocks on major roads into the capital.
They insisted however that they were not targeting tourists and the protests have remained largely peaceful, though further chaos is predicted. Thailand's railway system is already 70 per cent out of action due to action by unions in support of the PAD demonstrations. Unions at the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, have threatened action against the national grid and the Thai Airlines union is threatening to join the protests.
The PAD began their massive demonstrations four days ago demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and his cabinet. The group argues that corrupt politicians have been able to buy themselves into power.
PAD leaders claim that Samak and his cabinet intend to plunder the country, a charge which they brought against the former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, now owner of Manchester City FC. The protesters are angry that Thaksin and his wife Pojaman were allowed to flee Thailand after she was jailed and he was charged with corruption.
As the government battles to restore its authority, arrest warrants for treason have been issued against the PAD leaders, who include media magnate Sondhi Limthongkul, former Bangkok governor Chamlong Srimuang, Pibhop Dhongchai, an academic, and labour leader Somsak Kosaisuk. However, police have so far been unable to serve the warrants.
After meeting King Bhumipol Adulyadej at his summer palace in Hua Hin, Samak insisted he would not back down. Bhumibol's support is crucial. Although he is a constitutional monarch with no formal political role, he has repeatedly brought calm in times of turbulence during his 60 years on the throne.
'I, the Prime Minister, have come to office in the righteous way and I won't resign,' Samak said. 'I will not back down. I will rule this country and will lead it through all of the problems.'
He also defended himself against critics who say he should not have let protesters overrun Government House in Bangkok: 'I have been very patient and have refrained from using force.'
But Samak's position looks fragile. Army commander General Anupong Paochinda has rejected his request to declare a state of emergency, and the Chart Thai Party, a member of Samak's six-party coalition, said it was ready to suggest the Prime Minister step down.
Last night thousands of protesters remained camped out at Government House, where leaders called for a million people to join their ranks and demand an end to Samak's seven-month tenure. 'The protest has already developed into a people's revolution,' said protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul. 'I do believe that Samak is going to resign.