BANGKOK, Thailand – Women cooked food, gave free haircuts and distributed ice cream to protesters occupying Bangkok's international airport Friday as the Thai government backed off from its threat to forcibly evict them to end an economically damaging standoff.
The virtual siege by anti-government protesters on the international Suvarnabhumi airport since Tuesday and the domestic Don Muang airport a day later has completely cut off the capital to air traffic, stranding thousands of travelers and tarnishing the country's image.
But the protesters, belonging to the People's Alliance for Democracy, say they won't give up until the government of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat steps down.
"We are ready to defend ourselves against any government's operations to get us out of those places," said Parnthep Wongpuapan, an alliance spokesman.
An air of festivity enveloped the hundreds of protesters camped out at the ultramodern Suvarnabhumi airport, many sprawled out on the road in front of the signs of different airlines where passengers are usually dropped off.
"We need the food so people bring it. But we are not enjoying it even though it may look like a festival," said Lek Kriengkrairut, a 58-year-old construction contractor, as she ate an ice cream cone. She said she brought 200 blankets and 480 towels to give away.
In front of the United Airlines sign, some women stir-fried vegetables in gigantic woks on open propane gas stoves next to metal vats of iced juice. Nearby, a stage was set up on the back of a truck from where people sang songs, broadcast over a string of speakers. Trucks delivered food in boxes. A long queue formed at the stall giving away ice cream cones.
Inside the terminal building, a woman set up a makeshift barber stool to service a long line of men waiting for hair cuts. Artists made quick pencil portraits and stalls handed out oranges, bananas and clothing — all for free.
Somchai declared a state of emergency at the airports on Thursday night, authorizing police to take back the terminals that signaled an imminent crackdown. But by Friday morning, the government had apparently decided not to use force.
Government spokesman Nattawut Sai-Kau said police would avoid violence and attempt to negotiate with the protesters.
Police have been instructed to get the protesters out of airports "as soon as possible" in a "peaceful manner," Nattawut told The Associated Press.
"Firstly, the police should open negotiation with the protesters. If they refuse to go, police should do whatever is necessary to open the airports on the basis of nonviolence," he said.
Police will start their negotiations at Don Muang first, said Bangkok police chief Lt. Gen. Suchart Maunkaew. He told reporters that police will use loudspeakers and distribute pamphlets to warn protesters to disperse and not turn themselves into human shields.
"We want to open the airport, at least the domestic terminal at Don Muang airport," he said. "The prime minister has emphasized we avoid confrontation and damage. We will start with soft means, moving to the last measure — that is dispersing (protesters)."
Among those stranded are Thai Muslims planning to go on pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia this week. Thai Airways said it will arrange a special flight for about 250 pilgrims from Hat Yai in southern Thailand later Friday. More such flights are planned, said Narongsak Sangapong, a senior airline official.
The government's unwillingness to use force has raised doubts about whether Somchai has the support of police and the army, a powerful institution that has traditionally played a key role in the country's politics.
Army commander Gen. Anupong Paochinda has so far been neutral in the political turmoil, and even urged Somchai to call new elections, triggering speculation of a military coup.The whispers were further fueled by press reports Thursday of tank movements that the military later said were only a training exercise.
In an address to the nation Thursday night to announce the emergency, Somchai said that navy and air force personnel would help the police, but was vague about any participation by the army, saying only the government would also ask the army "to help take care of the people."
The emergency measures also empower the government to suspend some civil liberties, including restricting the movement of people and prohibiting mass assembly.
Emergency was declared once before in the three months since the protesters seized the prime minister's office, but there was no move to take advantage of its provisions, apparently because the army was reluctant to take on the alliance, which at the time enjoyed greater popularity.
They alliance's protest grew out of its hatred of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a brother-in-law of Somchai. Thaksin was ousted in a bloodless military coup in September 2006 after months of protests by the alliance.
It accused Thaksin and his allies of corruption and abuse of power. Thaksin is in exile, a fugitive from a conviction for violating a conflict of interest law. The group says Somchai is merely a Thaksin puppet and should go.
The protests, which gathered pace three months ago when demonstrators overran the prime minister's offices, have paralyzed the government, battered the stock market, spooked foreign investors and dealt a serious blow to the tourism industry.
The Bangkok Post quoted experts as saying that the damage from the airport shutdown could range between 134 billion baht and 215 billion baht ($3.7 billion and $6 billion) if the standoff extends to December. The meeting and convention business has already suffered losses of 11 billion baht ($310 million), it said.