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Thai protesters agree to U.N.-monitored talks, but government rejects conditions

By Blaine Harden
Monday, May 17, 2010; A06

TOKYO -- Protesters in Thailand said Sunday that they were willing to participate in U.N.-monitored talks with the government if the military ends a four-day-old crackdown that has turned parts of downtown Bangkok into a war zone.

One Thai official described the offer as a "positive sign" and asked for more details, as the government backed away from a threat to impose a curfew in Bangkok, a city renowned for its rowdy nightlife.

But the government quickly rejected any mediation by the United Nations and said that if the "red shirt" protesters are serious about negotiations, they should set no preconditions.

"If they want to talk, they should not set conditions like asking us to withdraw troops," said Korbsak Sabhavasu, an official in the prime minister's office, according to Reuters. Another government spokesman told reporters that the protesters must stop using weapons and threatening security forces.

It was unclear Sunday night whether the red shirt offer -- coming amid a determined military effort to seal off the protesters' encampment -- might break a two-month-old cycle of chaos on the streets of Thailand's capital. At least 29 people have been killed there since Thursday. According to Thai news reports, Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdiphol, a renegade army general who worked for red shirt protesters, died on Monday, four days after being shot in the head by a sniper.

Talks between the government and the protesters have a history of collapsing. A deal to end the violence was so close a week ago that some protest leaders had begun preparing to go home.

Red shirt demonstrators, it seemed, had forced the Thai government to call an early election. But that deal foundered on last-minute demands from leaders of the red shirts.

Differences between protest leaders and the government now seem all but irreconcilable, according to some diplomats and academics in Bangkok.

"We cannot retreat," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in a weekend television address to the nation. That speech seemed to lay the groundwork for increasingly tough military action against the red shirts.

So far, though, his government has not gone on the offensive with tanks, armored personnel carriers or heavy-caliber guns. There was no indication Sunday that the government was moving that kind of equipment into position, a diplomat said.

The standoff in Bangkok has its roots in a rural-urban conflict that has roiled Thai politics since 2006, when billionaire as prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a bloodless coup that had broad support among Bangkok's urban elite.

Many of these elites view Thaksin, who is now in exile and who is helping to fund the red shirts, as a corrupt thug. But Thaksin's populist policies have had an enduring political impact on Thailand, energizing the red shirts and awakening the rural majority to the idea that they can and should control the country's political destiny.

The red shirts view the current Thai leadership as an illegitimate and unelected spawn of the 2006 coup. Tacit support for that coup by King Bhumibol Adulyadej has also soured many rural people on the monarchy.

The king, who is now aged and ill, has long played a trusted and stabilizing role in this country, where there have been 18 coups since 1932. But in recent months, his picture has been taken down in many rural areas. Political analysts said the decline of the monarchy has created space for unrest that could lead to civil war.

When red shirts marched into Bangkok in March, their one demand was for swift new elections. For all the disorder they have since created -- crippling the tourist industry, paralyzing parts of central Bangkok and sparking violence that has killed at least 54 people and injured about 1,640 -- the red shirts kept their focus. They pushed the government into serious negotiations over a new date for elections.

A week ago, protest leaders appeared to be on the brink of accepting the government's promise that it would hold an election in November. Many analysts predict the red shirts could win a free and fair vote.

But a sticking point in the election negotiations was the fate of red shirt leaders whose behavior has been ruled by the government to be criminal.

"The hard-core leaders believed that if the protest stopped, they definitely would be killed by the government," said Viengrat Nethipo, a supporter of the red shirts who is an assistant professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. "That is why they think they have to fight. Now the hardcore has taken over."

A majority of the red shirt leadership voted last weekend to accept the government's deal, clear the streets and go home to prepare for a fall election, according to a diplomat who was privy to the negotiations.

But the red shirt leadership does not make decisions based on a majority vote, the diplomat said. There were influential holdouts who demanded that all those accused of criminal offenses be granted bail by the government. The government refused the demands, and the election deal fell apart.

Since then, leadership among the red shirts has fragmented and their demands have become increasingly unfocused. Some called last week for the arrest of the prime minister as a condition for ending the protests.

The areas of Bangkok where violence is occurring have expanded in recent days, as protesters try to stake out new encampments and soldiers attempt to clear them out. Protesters have fought back with homemade bombs, grenades and rifle fire.

In the spreading mayhem, occasional gunfire has encroached on the U.S. Embassy. It closed last week, but U.S. officials have not ordered a mandatory evacuation of embassy employees or their dependents.

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