Scheduled flights bring Thais back


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May 17, 1998


Reports of extortion by police at airport

Contingency plans have been drawn up but the situation in Indonesia does not warrant evacuation of Thais living there, Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan said yesterday.

Thai Airways is operating in and out of Jakarta as usual without increasing the number of flights.

About 20 Thais flew back to Bangkok with the airline yesterday.

Some returnees reported that Indonesian immigration officers were extorting money from desperate travellers by demanding exorbitant exit fees.

They said the fee, normally one million rupiah (about US$110 or 4,200 baht), had been increased to three million rupiah.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Kobsak Chutikul said the ministry would try to negotiate with Jakarta to waive the fee.

One returnee, Asadang Saeng-em, 37, a Siam Cement accountant, said the situation in Indonesia differed from Thailand's October 14 uprising.

"In the October 14 event, we were demanding democracy, but the people here want just one thing - the resignation of Suharto," said Mr Asadang.

"Department stores and shops have been looted, especially those belonging to the Chinese. There are food shortages. Restaurants and supermarkets are closed. Thais living there are scared and want to get back home."

After the riots started, he could not leave his home for three days.

He kept in contact with Thai friends in Jakarta through mobile phones.

Some 20 Siam Cement employees are to be flown back to Bangkok by the company.

Mr Asadang said it is better for all Thais to get out because the situation is uncertain.

Suthep Chayabanchonglert, a government official, said he would not return to Indonesia until the situation returned to normal.

Mr Suthep, who returned home with his wife and two children, predicted that the situation might get worse after Wednesday.

Dr Suthad Setboonsarng said he had to go back anyway, once the situation improved.

"As our family look like Chinese, I think it's unsafe for us to be there. I heard that even the manager of an international airline was chased and beaten when he was trying to get to the airport."

His wife Malin Setboonsarng, 40, said the riots happened so fast that she could not stock up on food supplies.

"We just went out shopping in the morning, and found that the city was on fire. All shopping centres were closed. We don't know if it is safe to go around. It's scary," she said.

Mrs Usa Gamble said she had lived in Indonesia for many years with her husband.

When the riots erupted, her husband was on a business trip to the US.

She and her family tried to get to the airport on the first day of the riots but there were no taxis.

She tried to contact the Thai embassy in Jakarta, and even phoned the Thai Airways counter at the airport, but there was no answer.

"The airport was very crowded and most of the flights were full. We had to wait there since 5 a.m. today until we got tickets for this flight. There are still more Thais waiting there, and I believe most will return on the next flight which will reach Bangkok tonight," she said.

Meanwhile, President Suharto is facing unprecedented pressure from students, intellectuals and religious leaders to step down, Asean diplomats based in Jakarta said yesterday.

The president has announced a plan to shake up his cabinet in what observers say is a bid to buy time.

"Suharto does not have any credibility left," said one diplomat, adding that the economy will suffer and foreign investor confidence will be further eroded.

The situation improved yesterday, with people returning to the streets despite the continued closure of shops, but sources says it is too early to conclude that things have returned to normal.

There was an unconfirmed report that students plan a rally on Wednesday to call for the president's resignation.

The students have been trying to distance themselves from the looters.

The diplomat said Asean has made clear its stance: it will not interfere in the unrest, seeing it as an internal Indonesian affair, but supports peaceful means to resolve the problem.

Many Jakarta-based Thais have telephoned to say they want to go home despite the improved situation, an embassy source said.

Eleven Thais staying at the embassy left for Bangkok yesterday on two Thai Airways flights.

Nine Indonesian marines are still on guard in the embassy compound.


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