Thai protesters want Parliament dissolved in month

Anti-government protestors gather stones and sticks as they prepare to face off against Bangkok police Friday morning. / AP photo

THANYARAT DOKSONE, Associated Press Writer

BANGKOK (AP) " Thai protesters seeking to oust the prime minister softened their demands Friday, saying they are willing to give him 30 days to dissolve Parliament and call new elections, instead of insisting that he take action immediately.

The new offer came a day after grenades killed one person and wounded 86 near the red-shirted protesters' rally site in Bangkok's central business district. The series of M-79 grenades struck areas where counter-demonstrators had gathered to denounce the Red Shirts, tens of thousands of whom have occupied parts of the capital for six weeks. The recent gatherings of rival protesters, who hurl rocks and insults, has created a volatile mix.

The Red Shirts consist mainly of poor, rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that ousted him in 2006. They believe Prime Minister Abhisit 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.

Their rivals include middle class families, some low-wage workers and members of the Yellow Shirts, a group that supports the current government and who themselves rampaged through Bangkok and seized the city's airports two years ago. The group staged a big rally in another part of Bangkok on Friday afternoon.

Jaran Ditthapichai, a Red Shirt leader, said his group held unofficial talks with the government on Wednesday and Friday. He claimed that the government had privately expressed a willingness to compromise, suggesting it could dissolve the government in three months instead of the six on which it originally insisted.

The Red Shirt statement does not categorically say the groups will give up its protest if Parliament is dissolved by the deadline, but rather that the group would be willing to negotiate with the government if three conditions are met. The others are for the government to stop harassing the group, and to call an impartial investigation of the violence that has marred the protest, including clashes that killed 25 people.

"If the government accepts and is open to the talks, we are ready to disperse to restore peace in the country," said another protest leader, Veera Musikapong.

Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn would not directly comment on the offer. "The prime minister attended a meeting on the matter and may give an interview tonight," he said. "The government has always been open to talks."

Much of the Thai capital's central business district remained paralyzed Friday following the deadly attacks. Many banks, offices, restaurants and a major shopping complex were closed along Silom Road, key downtown artery and a popular tourist strip. Traffic was light in the normally jammed four-lane thoroughfare, and even many food vendors had left their patches of pavement.

Bangkok's elevated train and subway transit systems shut nearby stations Friday, after one of the grenades forced people to flee one station.

Authorities urged the public to avoid the area and warned that anyone involved in "terrorism" will face the death penalty. The perpetrators are not known; the government insinuated that they were associated with the Red Shirt protesters but stopped short of directly blaming the group. The protesters have denied involvement.

Government spokesman Panitan said Thursday night the blasts were under investigation but that it was too soon to come to any conclusions.

At the mouth of Silom, the Red Shirts have erected a barricade of tires and bamboo stakes, behind which they have created a virtual village that stretches for more than a mile (2 kilometers) along one of the ritziest streets in the capital. Five-star hotels, shopping malls and office buildings in the upscale district have closed, further devastating the country's vital tourism industry already hit by the instability.

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."

Since the beginning of the crisis, 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 rioters.

Still, Thailand's powerful military warned the protesters again Thursday that time is running out to clear out or face a crackdown. A previous attempt to flush out the protesters led to the savage clashes between security forces and protesters that killed 25 and wounded hundreds.

Since the protests began, 45 incidents of grenade attacks and bomb explosions have rocked the city, according to the government.

Nobody has yet been apprehended, giving rise to speculation, including that some attacks were the work of renegade army officers either seeking to provoke the Red Shirts or to settle scores within the fractious military.


Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker, Denis D. Gray and Grant Peck contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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