Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Thai protesters welcome PM's offer, want details

BANGKOK – Thai anti-government protesters welcomed Tuesday a proposed compromise to end the violent political crisis that has paralyzed central Bangkok for nearly two months, but asked for more details on the plan before wrapping up their demonstrations.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva proposed holding new elections on Nov. 14 in exchange for the Red Shirt protesters, many of them from the rural poor, dismantling the camp they have set up in the middle of the Thai capital.

The standoff and related clashes have killed 27 people, wounded almost 1,000 and further polarized a country that has seen a string of chaotic political protests over the past five years.

The Red Shirt leaders met Tuesday to discuss the five-point plan and "unanimously welcomed the reconciliation process," said Veera Musigapong, a protest leader.

However, the protesters said they had no plans to leave the streets until all details of the plan were clarified.

"We're staying, but if an agreement could be reached easily and with stability, then I think soon we will leave," said Weng Tojirakarn, a protest leader.

The protesters said they wanted Abhisit to commit to a date for dissolving Parliament ahead of the election. That date could help determine the future balance of power in the country because a reshuffle of top military posts is to take place in September and the party in power could influence the outcome.

The plan, which Abhisit said took into account the main grievances of the protesters, was his first real effort to reach out to his opponents after several weeks of treating their demonstrations as mainly a security problem and accusing "terrorists" in their ranks of being responsible for the deadly violence.
The Red Shirts are still skeptical of Abhisit's motives, Weng said, noting that the prime minister "has always been tricky with his tactics."

Perhaps reflecting that, they've asked for unspecified confidence-building gestures from the government and demanded the monarchy not be used as a weapon in the confrontation.

The government, in recent days, has accused the protesters of being anti-monarchy, a weighty accusation in a nation where the king is beloved and disparaging the royal family is a crime.

"Stop using the issue of overthrowing the monarchy. You are dragging (down) the institution that is loved by Thais for political reasons. Stop that," said Sean Boonpracong, a protest spokesman.

Weng said the Red Shirts would wait for a reply from Abhisit before making any further decisions.

The government had no immediate response.

"It's too soon, we need to make sure we understand the full context and take our accounts before we have the appropriate response," said government spokesman Panithan Wattanayagorn.

Abhisit has said he would proceed with the reconciliation plan even if the protesters reject it, but in that case he could not set a date for the elections.

The five-point plan announced Monday calls for respect for the monarchy, reforms to solve economic injustices, free but responsible media to be overseen by an independent watchdog agency, independent investigations into violence connected with the protests and amending the constitution to make it more fair to all political parties.

Thailand's political heavyweights pushed all sides in the crippling stalemate to mark a royal holiday Wednesday with reconciliation.

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a 2006 coup and is a hero to the Red Shirts, said in a phone call to reporters that Coronation Day — which marks the day revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej was officially crowned — should mark a positive new beginning and the end of fighting among Thais.

"Therefore, if there is going to be a good beginning for reconciliation, that's a good thing. But everyone must not try to take petty political advantages, because nobody is anybody's fool," he said from his self-imposed exile abroad, where he is hiding from a corruption conviction.

He said it was up the Red Shirts to decide for themselves whether to accept Abhisit's plan.

Chavalit Yongchaiyuth, chairman of the opposition Pheu Thai party allied with Thaksin, praised the prime minister's plan and said he expects that "all sides will cooperate to bring the country back to peace."

The protesters — a mixture of rural and urban poor, as well as those who opposed the 2006 coup and later court rulings seen by many as politically motivated — claim Abhisit came to power illegitimately in December 2008 with the help of army pressure on legislators. They have previously called for Parliament to be dissolved in 30 days or less. An election must be held within 60 days of Parliament being dissolved.

Abhisit said Tuesday he hoped his proposal would end the divisions in the country.

"The protesters have to do their part and end the protest so that the country returns to peace," he said.


Associated Press writers Grant Peck, Jocelyn Gecker, Ravi Nessman and Denis D. Gray contributed to this report.

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