Thailand’s prime minister offered on Sunday to have his government hold talks with protesters trying to force him from power with massive demonstrations in the capital, but refused their demand that he immediately call new elections.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, said he would send two Cabinet—level officials to meet with the so—called “Red Shirts” after their massive show of strength a day earlier in which as many as 100,000 protesters drove through the streets of Bangkok in a giant caravan. He said he wants to ease tensions.
The Red Shirts, formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, have so far rejected his overtures, saying they want to speak directly to him instead.
The Red Shirts consist of supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup for alleged corruption, and pro—democracy activists who opposed the army takeover.
They believe Mr. Abhisit came to power illegitimately with the connivance of the military and other parts of the traditional ruling class and that only new elections can restore integrity to Thai democracy.
Mr. Thaksin’s allies took power in a December 2007 election but were forced out by court rulings. Mr. Abhisit’s Democrat Party then rallied the support of enough lawmakers to form a coalition government in December 2008.
The Red Shirts had billed their protest - which began a week ago - as a “million—man march,” but at its peak, it attracted just over 100,000 by most estimates. The crowd fell by as much as half during the work week.
The group also came in for criticism for splattering their own blood at the gates of Mr. Abhisit’s office, the headquarters of his ruling party and his private residence.
In the latest bid to publicize its cause, the group was using 15 leftover jugs of blood on Sunday to paint a mural.
“Artists and Red Shirts will be invited to partake in a blood painting,” a protest leader, Jatuporn Prompan, explained earlier. Supporters were invited to paint pictures, scrawl poems and express political statements on a giant white cloth.
Protest leaders have been portraying the weeklong demonstrations as a struggle between Thailand’s impoverished, mainly rural masses and a Bangkok—based elite insensitive to their plight. Critics say the protesters are merely pawns serving Mr. Thaksin’s ambitions to return to power.
Mr. Thaksin fled into exile in 2008 ahead of a conviction on a corruption charge that left him with a two—year prison term. He claims he is a victim of political persecution.
Saturday’s mobile demonstration rolled through 40 miles (70 kilometers) of city streets, meeting mostly sympathetic crowds that revealed a level of support in the capital that the conventional wisdom of the Thai press had underestimated.
The caravan stretched at times at least six miles (10 kilometers) along Bangkok’s streets, and Vichai Sangparpai, a commander in the Metropolitan Police, estimated the number of participants at 100,000, though the department later gave a figure of 65,000 people travelling on 10,000 motorcycles and 7,000 cars and trucks.
“I haven’t seen any opposition from Bangkok people. People were thankful. They came to cheer us from all walks of life. They gave water and food to us,” said Kotchawan Pim—ngern, 40, a flower seller who was riding on a pickup truck.
“Just seeing them come out made me happy,” she said. “They all want democracy back.”
Not everyone was pleased. Some hecklers held signs saying the demonstrators, many of whom came from rural areas, were not welcome, and some local television reports said a bottle was tossed at one protest leader as he drove by.
The mood soured on Saturday night when grenades were tossed at two government—linked targets. At least one person was wounded at the site of a small explosion near the Defence Ministry, but there was no major damage there or at the headquarters of the National Anti—Corruption Commission, where the other blast took place.
Protest leaders during the week disavowed colleagues who threatened violence. No one took responsibility for Saturday night’s blasts.