Thai PM sticks with peace plan; wants quick answer

By Khettiya Jittapong

BANGKOK (BestGrowthStock) – Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said on Sunday he would not abandon efforts to find a peaceful solution to a two-month political crisis despite renewed violence in Bangkok that took the death toll to 29.

But he also appeared to be running out of patience with “red shirt” protesters, telling them he wanted a reply within a day or two to his proposal to hold an early election on November 14.

The “red shirts” have been demonstrating in the capital since mid-March, at first demanding immediate elections, and have been camped out in a posh shopping area since April 3, forcing malls and luxury hotels to close at huge cost to the local economy.

“No matter how the political situation evolves, I affirm that the government will stick to the reconciliation plan and we have already started the process,” said Abhisit, who does not have to call an election until the end of 2011.

But he also said the deal he proposed on May 3 would be off if violence continued, and seemed to rule out negotiations.

“All parties have to cooperate and there should be no violence. If we can do that, the election will happen. If not, it won’t happen,” he said in a weekly televised address.

His proposals call for reforms to address social injustice, a big “red shirt” grievance; an independent body to ensure unbiased reporting by the media; a committee to investigate violence; and political reform, possibly including constitutional amendments.

The “red shirts,” drawn mainly from the rural and urban poor, want Abhisit to set a precise date for dissolving parliament and want a say in any constitutional changes.

Nattawut Saikua, a protest leader, told a news conference the “red shirts” would not be rushed.

“We don’t want to slow down the process and we know people are waiting for this. We are working on our plan,” he said.

“For the reconciliation process, in my opinion, the easiest part would be the government dissolving parliament and the red shirts ending the protest.”

They have promised a response by May 15 — too late for Abhisit. “There should be a clear answer today or tomorrow so that we can move ahead,” the prime minister said. “As for my proposal, it’s non-negotiable and nobody can propose conditions.”

GUNS AND GRENADE ATTACKS

Two policemen were killed and 13 people wounded in gun and grenade attacks late on Friday and early on Saturday, the latest violence linked to the protests that have crippled Bangkok and scared off tourists. More than 1,000 people have been wounded during the protests.

The red shirts denied involvement in the attacks, which will add to pressure on Abhisit from the Bangkok middle classes and elite to take a tougher line with the protesters.

Abhisit said that certain groups disagreed with his proposals and he named Major-General Khattiya Sawasdipol, also known as Seh Daeng, a renegade soldier in the “red shirt” camp. He stopped short of blaming Khattiya for the latest violence.

“I can say that Seh Daeng doesn’t want my plan and doesn’t want the protest to end. He has said clearly that he is trying to contact red shirt leaders in the provinces to object against central leaders joining in the reconciliation process,” he said.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, passing through Bangkok en route to Myanmar, welcomed the peace plan and said he was encouraged by the protesters’ positive response.

“However, it must be said that we remain cautious about progress as those who don’t want peace or political progress continue to employ violence as a means to undermine resolution of political difficulties,” he told a news conference.

The most recent attacks took place in the Silom Road area of the capital guarded by soldiers and packed with offices, hotels and bars popular with tourists. The area is close to an entrance into the fortified encampment held by the protesters.

Before the killings, the temperature had been cooling after a week of calm following Abhisit’s peace plan.

The “red shirts” support former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by the military in 2006. They say the ruling coalition has no mandate, having come to power in a parliamentary vote 17 months ago that they claim was orchestrated by the military.

Thousands remain in the 3 sq km (1.2 sq mile) camp, and Reuters reporters estimated that at least 10,000 were there on Sunday, more than usual even for a weekend morning.

At one point, 40 or more relatives of people who died in the first flare-up of violence on April 10 came together on the stage, some weeping as they held up portraits of the dead and appealed for donations to help pay for funerals.

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(Additional reporting by Adrees Latif and Pracha Hariraksapitak; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Thai PM sticks with peace plan; wants quick answer