BANGKOK – BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's prime minister, facing demands for new elections, proposed Monday a Nov. 14 date for fresh polls if anti-government protesters accept his reconciliation plan and peace and stability is restored.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva made the offer in a speech Monday night broadcast on all television channels, eight weeks into a tense standoff with demonstrators that has cost 27 lives.
Abhisit said he would proceed with his reconciliation plan even if the so-called Red Shirt protesters occupying central Bangkok reject it, but in that case he could not set a date for the elections.
The Red Shirts claim that Abhisit came to power illegitimately in December 2008 with the help of army pressure on legislators. They have called for Parliament to be dissolved in 30 days or less. An election must be held within 60 days of Parliament being dissolved.
A Red Shirt protest leader, Jatuporn Prompan, said the group would hold a meeting to discuss Abhisit's offer and give its response Tuesday.
Abhisit has said he wants enough time in office to pass a budget for next year. But both sides also want to be in control of the government when a key reshuffle of top military posts occurs in September so they can influence the outcome.
"If there is a reconciliation process and the country has peace and stability the election can be held on Nov. 14," Abhisit said. "That is the goal the government is ready to pursue."
Abhisit spelled out a five-point reconciliation plan that he said took into account the main grievances of the protesters, whose occupation of major streets in the capital since mid-March has caused economic havoc and further polarized the country, which saw unity fade away after a 2006 military coup ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin was accused of corruption and abuse of power, and since that time the nation has been split between his supporters and opponents. He fled into exile ahead of a 2008 conviction in which he received a two-year prison term on a conflict of interest charge. He continues to encourage his supporters and is widely believed to provide financial support to the Red Shirts.
Thaksin's support came in large part from the country's poor rural, who benefited from his innovative social welfare and village-level economic stimulus measures.
Abhisit's five-point plan covers respect for the monarchy, reforms to solve economic injustices, free but responsible media to be overseen by an independent watchdog agency, independent investigations of violence connected with the protests that caused 27 deaths and almost 1,000 injuries, and amendment of the constitution to make it more fair to all political parties.
"Many people feel they have not been treated justly, that they have not been given opportunities, and that they have been bullied by some powerful figures," he said, offering to address the problems in a systematic manner, including improved educational opportunities and health services.
Abhisit's speech was his first real effort to reach out to his opponents after several weeks of treating their protests as mainly a security problem and accusing "terrorists" in their ranks of being responsible for the deadly violence.
In suggesting how media should be free but not used as "political tools" to provoke violence and conflicts, he acknowledged that state-owned TV channels have been criticized for their bias. His government has tried to stop a Red Shirt satellite TV station from broadcasting and blocked scores of websites seen as sympathetic to the protesters.
Abhisit's proposal for reforming the constitution acknowledged grievances of "political injustice." Thaksin's supporters have been critical of laws enacted after the coup and court rulings targeting them, especially a 2008 court ruling disbanding Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party and banning him and more than 100 other party executives from public office until 2012.
Abhisit unveiled his plan just a day after warning that security forces were preparing to clear out the Red Shirt protesters — an action that would risk more bloodshed. But the prime minister gave no timeframe. Police with riot gear and armed soldiers remained deployed near the protest site Monday, but there was no sign of increased security or preparations for action.
Speaking to foreign reporters Sunday at a closely guarded military camp on the city's outskirts, Abhisit said the demonstrators, who include a large number of women and children, would be given prior warning of any move by security forces to shift them.
"I can say that we continue to exercise restraint and patience and the first, best solution is one that does not involve violence," he said.
Tharit Pengdit, chief of the Department of Special Investigations — Thailand's FBI — announced that two men had been arrested and an array of weapons seized in a raid in Bangkok on Monday morning. Evidence suggested the man were linked to the Red Shirts and had shot at a military helicopter, he said. The weapons included 107 Molotov cocktails, an M-16 assault rifle, a carbine rifle, five AK-47 rifles, tear gas bombs, smoke bombs and ammunition, he said.
Associated Press writers Denis D. Gray and Grant Peck contributed to this report.