Thai protesters say they’re ready to negotiate

Accept offer by Senate to mediate talks

A protester threw oil-soaked inner tubes yesterday as the military warned government opponents to retreat in Bangkok. A protester threw oil-soaked inner tubes yesterday as the military warned government opponents to retreat in Bangkok. (Getty Images)
By Vijay Joshi
Associated Press / May 18, 2010

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BANGKOK — Hopes rose today for an end to deadly mayhem in Thailand’s capital as leaders of a protest movement occupying central Bangkok said they would unconditionally accept an offer by the Thai Senate to mediate talks.

Scattered violence continued today in the standoff between soldiers and antigovernment Red Shirt protesters that has killed 37 people in the past six days.

The country’s upper house of Parliament yesterday offered to broker negotiations between the warring sides providing they both stopped the fighting that has transformed large swaths of downtown Bangkok to a war zone.

A Red Shirt leader, Weng Tojirakarn, told a news conference “we accept the proposal from the Senate.’’ Another protest leader, Nattawut Saikua, said, “It would not be right if I set conditions for the Senate.’’

It was not immediately known whether the government had agreed to the Senate talks.

In perhaps the most hopeful of recent signs that Thailand’s two-month-long crisis could be resolved, both sides last night revealed that the government’s chief negotiator and a Red Shirt leader had discussed negotiations in a mobile telephone call.

But previous attempts to negotiate an end to the standoff — which has destabilized a country once regarded as one of Southeast Asia’s most stable democracies — have failed. A government offer earlier this month to hold November elections foundered after protest leaders made more demands.

Meanwhile, violence continued unabated on Bangkok’s streets with security forces arresting a 12-year-old boy this morning for allegedly setting fire to several houses during the mayhem.

At least 37 people, mostly civilians, have been killed and 266 wounded since the government began a blockade last Thursday on a sprawling protesters’ camp in the heart of Bangkok. Most of the unrest has flared outside the camp, with troops firing live ammunition at roaming protesters who have lit tires to hide their positions.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s administration gave the antigovernment demonstrators, who have been entrenched in the upscale Rajprasong district for more than a month, an afternoon deadline yesterday to leave or face two-year prison terms.

By today, there was still no exodus among the estimated 3,000 protesters remaining at the camp, and no sign of troops trying to break through their tire-and-bamboo barricades.

The Red Shirts, many of whom hail from the impoverished north and northeast, have been rallying in the city since March 12 in attempts to unseat Abhisit and force immediate elections. They say the coalition government came to power through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military, and that it symbolizes a national elite indifferent to their plight.

Yesterday, the United Nations urged a negotiated solution, saying “there is a high risk that the situation could spiral out of control.’’ The Thai government said late yesterday that it would accept a cease-fire offer from a Red Shirt protest leader if their fighters end raging street battles and return to their main camp.

Nattawut called the government’s chief negotiator, Korbsak Sabhavasu, on his mobile phone yesterday, Korbsak said. It was the first direct talks between the two sides since the fighting started Thursday, though Korbsak said it was unlikely to achieve much as the two sides still remained far apart. Nattawut’s response was not immediately known. Calls to his phone went unanswered.

The UN high commissioner for human rights called for restraint on both sides and more talks. “To prevent further loss of life, I appeal to the protesters to step back from the brink, and the security forces to exercise maximum restraint,’’ commissioner Navi Pillay said in a statement from Geneva. “Ultimately, this situation can only be resolved by negotiation.’’