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Thai protesters demand more talks before quitting

Thai anti-government protesters demanded today more talks before agreeing to end two months of protests that have stifled the economy, scared away tourists and sparked Thailand's deadliest political clashes in 18 years.
Reuters | By HT Correspondent, Bangkok
UPDATED ON MAY 06, 2010 02:41 PM IST

Thai anti-government protesters demanded on Thursday more talks before agreeing to end two months of protests that have stifled the economy, scared away tourists and sparked Thailand's deadliest political clashes in 18 years.

The red-shirted supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra have broadly welcomed premier Abhisit Vejjajiva's five-point national reconciliation plan to end a crisis in which 27 people have been killed and more than 1,000 wounded.

But thousands remained on Bangkok's rain-slicked streets, barricaded in a 3 sq-km (1.2 sq-mile) stretch of upscale department stores, luxury hotels and expensive apartments, escaping tropical rains under a network of makeshift tents.

"We still have problems with many issues," Nattawut Saikua, a protest leader, told reporters. They have yet to agree to Abhisit's offer for a Nov. 14 election, he added.

The mostly rural and urban poor protesters have demanded immediate elections Thaksin's allies would be well placed to win, and say the ruling coalition lacks a popular mandate after coming to power in a controversial parliamentary vote 17 months ago.

They chafe at what they see as the military and unelected royalist aristocracy meddling in politics, and targeted the shopping district as a symbol of wealth out of reach to rural masses in a country with one of Asia's widest income disparities.

Some question the sincerity of Abhisit's peace overture.

The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, better known as the "red shirts", want to see the outcome of a ruling coalition meeting on Friday before determining their next move, added Nattawut, a former spokesman of the now-defunct Thaksin-backed People's Power Party.

Protest leaders are demanding a specific date for dissolution of parliament -- a technicality analysts said was likely being used as an excuse to negotiate better terms or to help protest leaders escape possible terrorism charges once the rally ends.

Abhisit said dissolution would take place between Sept 15 and 30 under laws requiring parliament be dissolved 45 to 60 days before an election. His Democrat Party made the same statement on Wednesday.

But if protesters don't leave, a November election may not be possible at all, he added.

Protest leaders remained sceptical.

"The reconciliation plan is very vague and Abhisit's promise is slippery. We have to make sure what we are getting before we declare victory," said Weng Tojirakarn, another protest leaders.

The stock market was down 1.8 per cent as trade resumed a day after a public holiday, broadly in line with Asian markets.
The baht was also softer.

Central Patana PCL, which manages Southeast Asia's second largest shopping mall, Central World, said the protests had caused a combined loss in revenue of $37 million for all retailers at the site, which has been closed since early April.

Thai stocks surged 4.4 per cent on Tuesday on optimism that Thailand's economy, Southeast Asia's second biggest, would see strong growth this year if peace returns to Bangkok's streets and the country's shattered tourism industry bounces back.

Three days before a deadly April 10 clash between protesters and troops, the World Bank had forecast Thailand's economy could grow 6.2 per cent this year. Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij has said the protests had already taken a toll on the economy, shaving 0.5 per centage point off growth as tourism withered.

"We believe developments in Thailand's political standoff should be positive enough to drive a short-term rise in the stock index," said Rakpong Chaisuparakul, a senior analyst with brokerage KGI Securities in Bangkok.

But negotiations to end the protests could be tough. The red shirts want the government to lift a state of emergency and remove troops stationed near the site before they leave.

Analysts say both sides want to be in power in September for a reshuffle of the powerful military and police forces, and for the passing of the national budget.

"We will fight till the end. I am ready to do that but I am not sure I will be satisfied if election is in November. Is that all we are getting after all this?" asked Nitsara Saengkam, 48-year-old woman preparing a papaya salad for fellow protesters.

Thaksin, a graft-convicted populist multimillionaire who fled Thailand after his ouster in a 2006 military coup, has broadly welcomed Abhisit's offer but said any decision to accept it is up to his supporters, whose numbers have dwindled in recent days aloing with their apparent bargaining power.

"Both sides need to sell something to their own supporters," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, political scientist at Chulalongkorn University.

"Abhisit cannot be seen as giving in to protesters and the protesters cannot leave home empty-handed or with less than what they were promised," he added. "Giving a dissolution date would appear like he is giving in to protesters' demand."

Rival "yellow shirt" protesters, whose occupation of Bangkok's airport in late 2008 helped bring down a Thaksin-allied government, harshly criticised the reconciliation plan.

"If the government still cannot enforce the law, we want Abhisit to show responsibility and resign," said the group's spokesman, Suriyasai Katasila.

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