Red shirts to stay until deal hammered out, vow protest leaders

TheTimesLOGOLeaders of Thailand’s anti-government protest movement last night cautiously welcomed Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s five point reconciliation plan, but criticised his planned election date of November 14. The leaders said Mr Abhisit had no right to set an election date, merely to dissolve parliament, but they conceded negotiations with the government had begun, potentially leading to a peaceful resolution of the political crisis that has dominated Thailand for nearly two months.

Dr Weng Tojirakarn, a senior protest leader, said the protesters’ barricaded encampment at Ratchaprasong in central Bangkok would not be abandoned until a solid agreement had been reached with the government, which might take as long as a month. “Mr Abhisit must answer to the public, to explain definitely what is the date for a dissolution of parliament,” he told The Times, adding that the prime minister was a wily foe and his offer might be camouflaging a political trick.

Dr Weng said he suspected the government of on-going preparations for suppressing the protest by force. “The most important thing is that we don’t want any more losses,” he said, referring to the 25 people killed on April 10, when the Thai military tried – and failed – to remove an earlier red-shirt encampment. Dr Weng expected the Thai government to respond with answers regarding the proposed election date today, setting the stage for further negotiations.

As many as 30 senior protest leaders met yesterday to discuss Mr Abhisit’s offer, and it was unanimously agreed negotiations with the government should begin. Protest spokesman Sean Boonpracong told the crowds from the stage in the centre of the protest encampment that the leaders had not asked for amnesties; they wanted justice to be meted out to everyone.

Thousands of United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship protesters, widely known as the red-shirts, last night listened to their leaders publicly explain Mr Abhisit’s offer in speeches broadcast throughout the encampment. They cheered and laughed and slept and rested in the steaming heat. Though weary after rolling protests which began in early March, they remained determined to do whatever it took to push Mr Abhisit’s government out of office.

Fulfilling a key protester demand, Mr Abhisit on Monday promised an election more than a year before his mandate expires. He promised to set up an independent committee to investigate the April 10 fatalities of protesters, soldiers and a Japanese cameraman. He also promised political and economic reform to eliminate injustice and, finally, oversight of the media. He said that he would proceed with his reconciliation plan even if the protesters rejected it, but if his plan was turned down, he would not set a date for the election.

The largely working-class red-shirts have been camped behind the makeshift barricades in the up-market shopping district of Ratchaprasong since early April, costing billions of baht in trade and battering Thailand’s already fragile international reputation. They consider Mr Abhisit’s government illegitimate because it came to power via defections from the opposition, rather than in an election, and they believe it is in thrall to the wealthy urban elites of Bangkok.  Their protest has prompted the emergence of pro-government groups, who rally to support Mr Abhisit, and who fear the return of a red-dominated government.

Thailand’s ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, now living in exile after he jumped bail in 2008, yesterday endorsed plans for reconciliation. Long considered the de facto leader of the red-shirts and Thailand’s red-aligned political parties, Mr Thaksin said he hoped “good things” would happen today, Coronation Day in Thailand, saying it was an auspicious date. In the phone-in to the red-shirt aligned opposition Puea Thai party, he said he was very well, scotching rumours he had cancer. “Reconciliation is good for everybody,” he said. “Today, don’t think about the past but look to the future. That is how national reconciliation will happen.”