Thai government rejects compromise of peace talks overseen by senate

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The Independent Online

Every day in Bangkok, hopes of a breakthrough that might end the violent crisis are raised. And every day such hopes are dashed.

Yesterday it was the turn of the Thai government to dismiss the latest offer for talks by the Red Shirts who have been holed up in the centre of Bangkok for two months. The protesters had said they were ready to drop their demand that the UN mediates any talks between the two sides and instead have members of the country's senate oversee the negotiations.

But the government, headed by prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, said it would only join talks once the protesters had left their fortified encampment and gone home. This is something the Red Shirts have also rejected, claiming that they would lose their leverage.

"They are still fighting. They are still killing more people," said Weng Tojirakarn, a senior Red Shirts leader. "We had requested that the United Nations mediate the talks, but that would take so long. That is why we requested the senate."

Instead of the government and protesters getting together yesterday, skirmishes between troops and Red Shirts continued, adding to the total of 39 people killed and almost 300 injured in just the past five days. In all, 67 people have keen killed since the crisis escalated in March.

The latest flash-point for violence was the Din Daeng district, north of the shopping area that is occupied by about 5,000 protesters. In Din Daeng, troops fired warning shots as protesters burned kerosene-soaked tyres and hurled petrol bombs.

At least two protesters were shot, said the Reuters news agency. By yesterday evening, a Siam City Bank branch was on fire and loud blasts could be heard. In another twist in the long-running saga, a group of about 20 protesters stripped down to their underwear to protest the military's action. Their aim was to stress that they are unarmed civilians.

But if peace is to be brokered and further bloodshed avoided, it is going to take more than such stunts. Both sides have said they are willing to compromise and sources have said that, at least until recently, there have been back-channel contacts between the two sides.

The authorities appear increasingly aware that images being broadcast around the world show a conflict that is deeply uneven. While the Thai troops are heavily armed with automatic weapons and shotguns, the protesters are carrying mainly petrol bombs, sling-shots and fireworks, though some reports claim a small number may also have handguns.

Business leaders are also increasingly aware of the toll that crisis is taking on a country where tourism accounts for up to six per cent of GPD.

The Finance Minister, Korn Chatikavanij, said: "We have to admit that the long-running protest has been affecting the capability and opportunities for businesses, including those not in the protest area."

Many of the Red Shirts are supporters of the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006 while he was out of the country. The coup was apparently supported by a number of conservative and regressive groups within the country, opposed to his populism.

Instead, the twice-elected Mr Thaksin drew his support from many of the rural poor, especially from Thailand's north and north-east. It is those same people who now make up many of the Red Shirt protesters holed-up in the encampment in the centre of Bangkok, defiantly refusing to leave but hoping for a breakthrough.