Guarded hope rose on Saturday that Thailand’s political deadlock, punctuated by increasing hostility and bloody street violence, could be settled peacefully after protesters softened their demand for an immediate change in government.
But one protest leader said he was unhappy with Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s apparent brush-off of the offer on Friday to accept the dissolving of Parliament within 30 days for new elections.
“If the Prime Minister still rejects the offer, we the Red Shirts will continue demonstrations,” one of the leaders, Khwanchai Praipana, told supporters in the Bangkok commercial district where they remain entrenched.
But other Red Shirt leaders tried to convince the crowd that the new negotiating position was not a retreat and included a demand that the government and military take responsibility for the violence which has resulted in 26 deaths and almost 1,000 wounded.
“At least this is better than before. Here is a chance that the crisis would end without bloodshed,” said Prinya Thewanaruemiktul, a law lecturer at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. Other media and academic commentaries also expressed some optimism while warning that the crisis was far from resolved.
The compromise position emerged a day after five grenades struck an elevated train station and a street where rival protesters had gathered to hurl insults and rocks at the Red Shirts, whose occupation of parts of the capital for six weeks has paralyzed business and daily life in the city.
The attacks killed one person and wounded 86, and the heated passions of the rival protesters have raised fears of escalating vigilante-type violence.
Jaran Ditthapichai, a Red Shirt leader, said his group held unofficial talks with the government on Wednesday and Friday. He claimed the government privately expressed willingness to compromise, suggesting it could dissolve the government in three months instead of the six on which it originally insisted.
He said the proposal for a 30-day deadline — instead of immediately — was offered to try to avoid new violence.
Mr. Abhisit did not respond directly when asked by reporters about the offer. He said that what was most important now was everybody should abide by the law.
“I just want to say that I will not stay on if I don’t mean to solve the problem,” he said. “Currently, I believe that I grieve as everybody does. And I intend to solve the problem.”
The Red Shirt statement does not categorically say the group will give up its protest if Parliament is dissolved by the deadline, but rather that it would be willing to negotiate with the government if three conditions are met. The government has up to 60 days to hold an election after dissolving Parliament
However, another protest leader, Veera Musikapong, said, “If the government accepts and is open to the talks, we are ready to disperse to restore peace in the country.”
The other conditions are for the government to stop harassing the group, and to hold an impartial investigation of violence that has marred the protests, including a government sweep on April 10 to oust the Red Shirts that resulted in 25 deaths and more than 800 injuries.
Asked what would happen if people feel that they could not rely on his government to handle the situation and instead take action themselves, Mr. Abhisit said: “I have to stand firm that I can’t let that happen. And if I can’t do it, I shall not stay on.”
The Red Shirts consist mainly of rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that ousted him in 2006. They believe Mr. Vejjajiva’s government is illegitimate because it came to power under military pressure through a parliamentary vote after disputed court rulings ousted two elected pro-Thaksin governments.
The Red Shirt opponents include workers inconvenienced by the demonstrations and members of the Yellow Shirts, who oppose Mr. Thaksin’s return to power and who themselves staged protests in Bangkok two years ago, seizing the city’s airports and Prime Minister’s offices. The group staged a big rally in another part of Bangkok on Friday afternoon.
Much of Bangkok’s business district was paralysed on Friday but some offices, restaurants and other shops reopened Saturday along Silom Road, the key downtown artery and a popular tourist strip. The street’s major shopping complex planned to open Saturday with shorter hours.
Thailand is suffering major economic losses, as foreign tourists shun it, investors are wary and shopping malls in the occupied commercial zone forgo millions of dollars in sales.
The perpetrators of the Thursday attack are not known; the government stopped short of directly blaming the Red Shirts, saying only that the grenades were fired from an area where they are encamped. The protesters have denied involvement.
Opposite the mouth of Silom Road, the Red Shirts have erected a barricade of tires and bamboo stakes guarding their virtual village of outdoor showers, tents and stalls selling food and red clothing and souvenirs along more than 2 km of one of the ritziest streets in the capital. Five-star hotels, shopping malls and office buildings have closed for weeks.
Since the beginning of the crisis, Mr. Abhisit’s government has threatened to curtail the protests but has failed to follow through. Military units from the 200,000-strong Army have been routed in several confrontations with the crudely armed demonstrators. The police have often melted when faced with determined protesters.
Several countries strengthened their travel advice for Thailand after Thursday’s attacks. The U.S., Britain and the Scandinavian countries have urged their citizens to avoid Bangkok. Australia told its nationals “to reconsider your need to travel to Thailand.”