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No end in sight as Thai protesters refuse to leave

world Updated: May 11, 2010 19:37 IST

Reuters
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Thai protesters refused on Tuesday to call off demonstrations that have paralysed Bangkok's commercial heart and stifled the economy, while the government said it had done all it could to reach a deal.

That leaves few options for ending mass protests by Thailand's rural and urban poor that have sparked a two-month crisis in which 29 people have been killed and more than 1,000 wounded in the country's worst political violence in 18 years.

The anti-government "red shirts" accepted on Monday a timetable for a Nov. 14 election proposed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva but also set a new condition: Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban must face prosecution over a clash with troops in April that killed 25 people.

Suthep, chief of security during the protests, went to the Department of Special Investigation on Tuesday to hear complaints filed against him by relatives of some of those killed, but the protesters said he must face formal criminal charges before they would agree to leave the city's main shopping district.

"The legal proceeding has not begun," Nattawut Saikua, a red shirt leader, told a news conference.

Thousands show no sign of leaving. Fresh supplies including vegetables, meat and bottled water were piled up under a large tent in front of the shuttered Four Seasons Hotel. "We are not going anywhere until the government shows they will take responsibility for the clash," said 39-year-old protester Panna Saengkumboon. "People lost their eyes, their legs and arms. Others paid for this with their lives."

Disparate views among red shirt leaders, ranging from radical former communists to dovish academics, make it difficult to reach a decision on how to end the demonstrations.

Some leaders harbour political ambitions and need to appease rank-and-file supporters. Others fear ending the protest now would be a one-way ticket to jail. Some hardliners advocate stepping up the protests to win the fight once and for all.

Fuelling talk of a split, one of their most respected and moderate figures, Veera Muksikapong, has disappeared from public view for two days. Some red shirt leaders said Veera, who the government has tried to court in the past, has been ill.

The red shirts, who broadly support ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, have been demonstrating since mid-March, at first demanding immediate elections. They say the ruling coalition has no mandate after coming to power in a parliamentary vote 17 months ago orchestrated by the army.

More than 20 protest leaders face criminal charges ranging from violating a state of emergency to weapons possession and assaulting security officers. Some face more serious charges under terrorism statutes punishable by up to 20 years in jail.

Red shirt leaders said the head of the government should face terrorism charges as well. "They are trying to force the police to formally charge government officials," said Tanet Charoengmuang, a political scientist at Chiang Mai University. "Essentially, they refuse to go down alone and take all the blame."

ECONOMIC DAMAGE

On April 10, troops clashed with protesters in a chaotic gun battle in Bangkok's old quarter. Twenty civilians and five soldiers were killed.

"We reiterate our point that Suthep has to be formally charged and there has to be a summons for him," said Weng Tojirakarn, one of several leaders of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, the protesters' formal name.

"He has to answer the summons and then we will call off the protest," added Weng, speaking after top red shirts met for two-and-a-half hours in a container truck at the protest site.

There are precedents for senior officials to face criminal charges in this way. Cases can then be bogged down for years in Thailand's labyrinthine legal system, but such a scenario could offer a way out for all sides.

Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said it was the Department of Special Investigation's job to handle all cases tied to the protests.

"The government has done its best," said Panitan, when asked if authorities would do more to satisfy the red shirts' demands.

The red shirts' campaign has paralysed an upmarket Bangkok commercial district, where thousands of protesters remained camped behind barricades of sharpened bamboo staves and tyres, and hammered the lucrative leisure and tourist sector.

"Thailand has been an unfortunate disappointment," said Nash Benjamin, chief executive of Singapore retailer FJ Benjamin, which runs a La Senza and two Celine franchises in Bangkok and may close one or two of the shops.

"We don't see any light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

Abhisit has come under pressure from the Bangkok middle classes and traditional elite to get tough but faces a dilemma about how to dislodge the red shirts, including women and children, from a camp that sprawls across 3 sq km (1.2 sq mile).

He does not have to call an election until the end of 2011 but offered the November poll as a way to end the crisis.