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Two airports and twice the confusion

Updated On: Feb 09, 2007

The interim Thai government is about to take another difficult decision that has already invited widespread concern. 

This is concerning the re-opening of the old Don Muang airport in one and a half month’s time. Perhaps this time the fault has to be put squarely on the Thaksin administration whose corrupt practices caused the Suvarnabhumi airport construction to fail safety standards.

After the opening of the widely-hailed Suvarnabhumi airport –meant to compete with the other major airports in Asia – major problems such as “cracks on its runways and taxiways, damages to passenger boarding bridges, and other facilities at the terminal” have emerged.  Extensive repairs will be needed and some runways have to be closed that will result in delays.  The Bangkok Post reported that Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont therefore decided to get cabinet’s support for the reopening of the old Don Muang airport.

PM Surayud realized “his government did not have the luxury of time” and needed to inform the public “what the government intends to do with Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang airports so that officials at both airports and airlines would have more time to prepare for the move, map out what needs to be done and settle everything before the long weekend during the Songkran festival”, the Bangkok Post noted.. While this decision may be the most expeditious for the government, it is not without its detractors. It scraps the original plan that Don Muang service domestic flights while Suvarnabhumi services international routes. There is a lot of confusion and reluctance for airlines to straddle both airports –costs of transits and transfers of passengers and cargo will complicate flight schedules. However, as the government has now decreed, it falls to the “Transport Ministry, particularly the Civil Aviation Department, to translate it into action”.

The Bangkok Post stated that “while not all airlines will be allowed to return…. Thai Airways International will have no choice but to stay put at Suvarnabhumi, using the new airport as its main base to maintain the objective of the government to use Suvarnabhumi as the country's main airport, with some flights to be diverted to Don Muang”. Another airline source has “warned that cargo services should not be allowed to move to Don Muang because it could jeopardise long-term investment plans at Suvarnabhumi and hamper the country's plan to use the new airport as a hub for cargo in the region”. With the increased costs of using both airports, as well as the hefty bill that could run into millions in the Suvarnabhumi repairs that could take up to two years, the justification of having two international airports for Bangkok just like it is in other major cities seems like a thin cover-up for the crumbling source of national pride Suvarnabhumi has turned out to be.

As problems seemed to pile up for the interim government, over in the South, the insurgents are also seemingly getting bolder. Just an hour before the arrival of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn at a Pattani sports stadium, a bomb was detonated by mobile phone about 100 metres from the venue. The Bangkok Post reported Gen. Winai Patthiyakul, secretary-general of the Council for National Security, as being “hopeful the situation would improve” with the increased efforts of security and community relations personnel. He also believed that “the appointment of Pol Gen Seripisuth Temiyavej as acting national police chief would also inject new hope into efforts to solve the southern violence”.

PM Surayud had decided to remove the poorly-performing Police Gen. Kowit Wattana as the national police chief after investigations for the “New Year's Eve bombings, school arson attacks in the Northeast and a few other high-profile cases” came to nought. This has come amid public approval who have always derided Gen. Kowit’s leadership. The acting police chief, Gen. Seripisuth, has swore that his top agenda is to “resolve the high-profile cases inherited from his predecessor which include, among others, the nine blasts on New Year's Eve in Bangkok and Nonthaburi which left three people dead, the bomb attack at the Daily News newspaper office, the more than 30 arson attacks on schools in the Northeast and the North, and the lese majeste allegations against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra”.

This comes amid a belated reform of the Thai police, which has a notorious record for brutality and corruption, in which the UN will be assisting. The Thai News Agency reported that “the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the UN Criminal Justice Reform Unit offered to send specialise experts to assist Thai counterparts in planning the restructuring of Thailand's national police force” in March.

Hopefully these measures will ease the Southern tensions. Already the Thai Queen has urged the entire Kingdom to be proactive and “condemn the violence and brutality in the restive south and act against it”.

Over in Malaysia, former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has joined his nemesis former Malaysia PM Mahathir Mohamed in calling for both Thailand and Malaysia to step up efforts to procure peace. His recommendations include the granting of amnesty to separatists, “recognising and respecting the Malay language and religion of the locals” and that Malaysia PM Abdullah Badawi “should be more forceful in calling for Muslims in the southern provinces to support the peace process and not just regard the issue as a Thai problem”.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar has also weighed in to warn of the danger of Thai South becoming terrorist hotbed.  Ahead of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s three-day visit to Thailand, Syed Hamid told reporters that Malaysia is willing to help find a durable and lasting solution to the conflict in the south.

In response, General Pongthep Taedprateep, Secretary-General to PM Surayad told reporters that Thailand will accept Malaysia offer for help only on a “government-to-government” basis and will not do “anything outside the system” as an indirect reference to former Prime Minister Mahathir’s offer to mediate.  (9 February 2007)

Sources:

Terror groups may put bases in Thai South (Straits Times, 9 February 2007)

Queen: Speak up against killings (Nation, 8 February 2007)

And then there were two airports (Bangkok Post, 8 February 2007)

Blast mars Princess' visit to Pattani (Bangkok Post, 8 February 2007)

Don Muang to reopen in 45 days (Bangkok Post, 8 February 2007)

A lot expected of new police chief (Bangkok Post, 8 February 2007)

Green light for two-airport policy (Bangkok Post, 8 February 2007)

UN experts to help with Thai police reform (Thai News Agency, 31 January 2007)