“The government should return power to the people,” army commander Gen. Anupong Paochinda told reporters, according to the New York Times.
However, Anupong said that the military — which temporarily seized control of the country only two years ago — would not attempt a coup. “We will not seize power from the government. We are just making a suggestion and will let the government decide,” he said.
Anupong also urged anti-government protesters to leave Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, which was seized Tuesday by men with metal rods who pushed past riot police. Since then, protesters have poured into the building, forcing the cancellation of all flights and stranding travelers.
By midday Wednesday the protesters had also seized the airport’s control tower. Travelers were being evacuated and bused to hotels in Bangkok.
“We sympathize with the passengers but this is a necessary move to save the nation,” protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul said from a makeshift stage in the airport, according to the Associated Press. “If he doesn’t resign, I will not leave.”
Many travelers seemed bewildered by the events.
“I was aware there was a political situation in Thailand, but I wasn’t expecting this to happen,” Keith Torluemke, a San Francisco resident on vacation in Thailand, told the Times. “I was going to get home on Thanksgiving afternoon.”
Meanwhile, protesters in matching yellow shirts were settling in for the long haul at the airport, according to AP, preparing food and using luggage trolleys to carry in boxes of water.
The airport takeover caps three years of intermittent protests against the Thai government, which have intensified in the last two days. Thailand’s previous prime minister, telecommunications billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, was forced from office in a military coup in 2006, however, the protesters believe that the government of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat — Thaksin’s brother-in-law — is just a proxy for the old one.
The protesters are a loose coalition of royalists, academics and the urban elite who say they are frustrated with years of corruption and vote buying, according to the Times.
But Thaksin and his allies are still popular among the rural poor, to whom they’ve provided low-cost health care and subsidized loans. Somchai’s party won by a large margin in elections held last year.
The protesters — part of a group called the People’s Alliance for Democracy — want to make 70 percent of parliament appointed rather than elected.
But according to the Washington Post, the group has been unable to gather the necessary support to win elections or force the government to resign. So instead, in recent months the alliance has staged several major demonstrations, including taking over the prime minister’s office in late August, aimed at paralyzing the government and forcing a military coup.
But Anupong has said there will be no coup.
“The armed forces have agreed that a coup cannot solve our country’s problems,” he told reporters, according to the Washington Post.
Meanwhile, government supporters were striking back at the protesters. Early Wednesday they threw four explosives at groups of anti-government demonstrators, including one about a half-mile from the airport.
Meanwhile, the prime minister, who was at a summit in Peru when protesters stormed the airport, was scheduled to return Wednesday. Government spokesman Nattawut Sai-gua told reporters the prime minister is not likely to resign.
“It is unlikely he will change his position by resigning or dissolving Parliament, he said, according to the AP.