Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Thai protesters welcome premier's olive branch

Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Anti-government protesters react to their leaders' speeches about Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's reconciliation plan.
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(05-04) 04:00 PDT Bangkok - -- Anti-government Red Shirt demonstrators said Tuesday that they welcomed a reconciliation plan offered by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva but demanded more details before agreeing to end their seven-week occupation of parts of Thailand's capital.

Abhisit offered to hold an election Nov. 14, much later than the 30-day deadline the protesters had demanded, but which would cut short his four-year term by more than a year.

"We have reached a consensus to accept the process of reconciliation," said Veera Musikapong, a protest leader. "This is because we want to spare lives."

He said the Red Shirts are seeking clarification about the time frame for a dissolution of the government.

The proposed compromise won praise from people on many sides of Thailand's fragmented political scene, primarily as a way to defuse an intense confrontation that has raised fears of widespread violence or, as some Thai commentators warned, could even lead to civil war.

"The prime minister's road map is a good one, and it seems like everyone agrees with it," said Suryasai Katsila, a leader of the opposing Yellow Shirt pressure group, which generally supports the government.

But he added: "This is just to find a way out. It's not a solution for Thai society."

The protests grow out of deep social and economic divisions that have reached a critical moment as the country's poor majority challenges the entrenched elite for a greater voice in national affairs.

Abhisit's mentor, former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, also voiced doubts, saying, "I'm not sure whether this will be a solution for the country."

He said he opposed acceding to the protesters' demand to dissolve parliament, which would happen in the case of a new election. "We should not dissolve because someone threatens us to dissolve it," he said.

The long occupation has paralyzed the glittering commercial center of the city, which has become a lawless zone sealed off from traffic and guarded by protesters. The city's biggest malls and some of its five-star hotels have been closed.

The prime minister has come under intense pressure to end the occupation, but both he and his military chiefs have said they do not want to use force because of the potential for extensive casualties.

The long standoff has also taken its toll on the Red Shirts, and their protest site, far more thinly populated than in the past weeks, looked bedraggled behind the menacing spiked walls and gates that they had erected.

The proposed election date was likely to displease some factions of the protest movement because it would allow the current government to conduct the annual reshuffling of military leaders in September and to pass a new budget.

This article appeared on page A - 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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