Thai prime minister meets anti-government protest leaders in nationally televised talks

By Jocelyn Gecker, AP
Sunday, March 28, 2010

Live on TV: Thai PM vs. anti-government protesters

BANGKOK — Thailand’s prime minister met his political opponents on live television Sunday to try to defuse a crisis that has produced huge demonstrations and sent him fleeing to live at an army base, but the protest leaders said new elections are the only answer.

Viewers across the nation watched three men in red and three in blue — the “Red Shirt” protest leaders, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajva and two advisers — shake hands with strained smiles across a conference table before reiterating their sharply different stances. More talks were set for Monday, but Sunday’s three-hour meeting offered little reason to believe any agreement could be reached.

“Our request is simple and direct. We would like Parliament dissolved to return power to the people, so they can make their decision,” said Veera Muksikapong, one of the protest leaders.

Abhisit has repeatedly rejected the protesters’ demands that he dissolve Parliament, arguing that calling new elections will not fix Thailand’s deep political problems.

“The wound in this country cannot be healed by dissolving Parliament,” Abhisit said. “I have to make a decision based on a consensus from the entire country, including the Red Shirts.”

“If I dissolve Parliament, what color shirts will spring up next?” he asked.

The talks were a relatively calm moment after more than two weeks of protests that have drawn more than 100,000 people to peaceful but increasingly confrontational rallies against a government that demonstrators consider illegitimate. The protests have raised concerns of violence and prompted travel warnings from three dozen countries.

“Can we bring a pleasant atmosphere back to the country?” Vejjajva asked during the talks, which included tension, some laughter, a few jokes and a plea from the protesters to take a bathroom break after two hours.

Abhisit has been sleeping and working at an army base outside Bangkok since the protests started March 12. He had initially refused protesters’ demands for talks on live television but abruptly reversed course Sunday “to restore peace and minimize the chance of violence,” his office said. He met protest leaders at an academic institute in a Bangkok suburb.

The talks were broadcast on a giant screen at the main protest site, in the historic heart of Bangkok, where thousands of red-shirted protesters watched and waited for direction from their leaders.

“For now, we are not going to mobilize any more red shirts,” protest leader Jatuporn Prompan said as he exited the talks. “But we hope that tomorrow we get a clearer picture.”

Sunday’s talks gave the Red Shirt leaders new legitimacy but offered a face-saving situation for both sides, analysts said.

“The prime minister has defused the tension quite nicely,” said Somchai Pagapasvivat, political science professor at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.

“The meeting today and tomorrow won’t achieve anything concrete. But it’s a truce. It’s a temporary win-win situation for both sides,” he said. “There’s no exit now, but in the future it will depend on who can garner more support.”

Thailand’s political crisis started in 2006 when protesters wearing yellow shirts demanded the ouster of then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whom they accused of corruption. Thaksin was toppled later that year by a military coup.

Four years later, Thaksin remains at the center of Thailand’s political conflict. He has helped orchestrate the Red Shirt protests from Dubai and other locations since fleeing a corruption conviction in 2008.

The Red Shirt movement — known formally as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship — consists largely of Thaksin supporters from the country’s poor, rural heartland and pro-democracy activists who opposed the army takeover.

Protest leaders have portrayed the demonstrations as a struggle between Thailand’s impoverished, mainly rural masses — who benefitted from Thaksin policies of cheap health care and low-interest village loans — and a Bangkok-based elite impervious to their plight.

Thaksin’s allies won elections in December 2007, but two resulting governments were forced out by court rulings. A parliamentary vote brought Abhisit’s party to power in December 2008. The Red Shirts say his rule is undemocratic and that only new elections can restore integrity to Thai democracy.

Abhisit must call a new election by the end of 2011, and many believe Thaksin’s allies are likely to win — which could spark new protests by Thaksin’s opponents. The Yellow Shirts occupied Government House for three months in 2008 and then shut Bangkok’s airports for two weeks.

The Red Shirts, who say they are committed to nonviolence, launched protests this month with a made-for-TV “blood sacrifice.” After collecting donated blood from supporters that filled dozens of jugs, they splattered the blood at Abhisit’s office, his private residence and his party headquarters.

A string of non-fatal grenade attacks at government offices in Bangkok have heightened tension. A dozen soldiers and four civilians were wounded in weekend blasts at the army base serving as Abhisit’s office and at two state-run TV stations.

Associated Press Writer Kinan Suchaovanich contributed to this report.

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