Thai protesters welcome government plan to end political crisis, but want to talk
BANGKOK – BANGKOK (AP) — Protest leaders said they agreed in principle Tuesday with a government-proposed compromise to end Thailand's deadly political crisis, but refused to leave their camp in Bangkok's streets until details can be worked out.
Pressure on both sides to end the 8-week-old stalemate has grown in recent days, with the government fending off calls for a crackdown on the paralyzing protest and the anti-government "Red Shirts" attempting to recover from a public relations debacle caused by their raid of a hospital.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had previously demanded that the protesters leave the streets before a compromise could be reached. But with damage to the economy and political stability growing, Abhisit went on nationwide television Monday night to present his plan for rescuing Thailand from the political morass in which it has been trapped since a 2006 military coup deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on corruption allegations.
The plan includes an offer of new elections on Nov. 14 — about a year before Abhisit's term would end — if the Red Shirts stop their protests.
Veera Musikapong, a Red Shirt leader, said after meeting with colleagues Tuesday that they "unanimously welcomed the reconciliation process" but did not commit themselves to abandoning their street demonstration.
"We're staying, but if an agreement could be reached easily and can stand, then I think we will leave soon," Weng Tojirakarn, another protest leader, told The Associated Press.
The Red Shirt demonstrators — consisting of supporters of Thaksin and others who believe the coup was a blow to democracy — accuse Abhisit of taking power illegitimately through back-room deals and military pressure on legislators. The protesters have been camped in Bangkok's streets since mid-March, demanding Abhisit dissolve Parliament and call new elections.
Clashes with soldiers and other violence have cost 27 lives and left almost 1,000 people hurt.
Abhisit said his five-point plan takes into account the protesters' main grievances. It includes respect for the monarchy, reforms to resolve economic injustice, free but responsible media to be overseen by an independent watchdog agency, independent investigations of violent incidents connected with the protests, and amendment of the constitution to be more fair to all political parties.
The Red Shirts have called on the government to clarify some details. There was no immediate response from the government.
The timing of the dissolution has been a crucial issue, and the Red Shirts rejected Abhisit's earlier offer to dissolve Parliament by the end of the year. Abhisit has said he wants enough time in office to pass a national budget for next year. But both sides also want to be in control when a key reshuffle of top military posts occurs in September so they can influence the outcome.
Some of the Red Shirts' influential backers have signaled their support for the proposal, suggesting the standoff could end by Wednesday, a royal holiday.
Thaksin 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.
"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," he said from exile abroad, where he is avoiding a two-year prison sentence for corruption.
Chavalit Yongchaiyuth, chairman of the opposition Pheu Thai party allied with Thaksin, praised the prime minister's plan. Speaking before the Red Shirt leaders responded to the proposal, he said he believed the protest would end Wednesday and "all sides will cooperate to bring the country back to peace."
A previous attempt last month at resolving the conflict through two days of televised talks between Abhisit and Red Shirt leaders was unsuccessful. In the past two weeks, private talks have been held, while government security forces have kept up pressure on the demonstrators with a show of strength in downtown Bangkok.
At the same time, the Red Shirts suffered a publicity debacle last week when a large group of them barged into a hospital next to their protest camp to search for soldiers they believed were hiding there. Public revulsion at the action was fanned by pro-government media.
The Red Shirts said Tuesday they want the government to cease blocking their media. The government has tried to stop a Red Shirt satellite TV station from broadcasting and blocked scores of websites seen as sympathetic to the protesters.
They also called on the government to cease linking them to an alleged violent anti-monarchy movement. Accusations of disloyalty to the king are political poison in Thailand.
Even if the protesters reach agreement with Abhisit, the prime minister might face opposition from his own side. Chuan Leekpai, a former prime minister and elder statesman in Abhisit's Democrat Party, said he disagreed with dissolving Parliament under threat.
A similar position is held by the royalist People's Alliance for Democracy, whose anti-Thaksin protests in 2006 helped set the stage for the coup. To oppose two pro-Thaksin prime ministers in 2008, the group occupied the prime minister's offices for three months and took over Bangkok's two airports for a week.
The Red Shirts' response to Abhisit's plan "is a positive sign," said Viengrat Nethipo, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
"Abhisit was trying to find an exit for both sides even though neither gets everything they want," she said. "There are no winners or losers."
Associated Press writers Thanyarat Doksone, Jocelyn Gecker, Ravi Nessman and Denis D. Gray contributed to this report.