Thai PM meets protestors

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit
Vejjajiva has held face-to-face talks with leaders of the protesters demanding
that he resign and call new elections.

Mr. Abhisit’s spokesman said he had
“accepted the request to negotiate” in an effort to “restore
peace and minimise the chance of violence”.

The prime minister has consistently
said he will not bow to any ultimatums.

Correspondents say the talks are a
sign of compromise after two weeks of demonstrations in the capital, Bangkok.

Earlier, four soldiers were injured
after grenades were thrown at a heavily-guarded army barracks on the outskirts
of the city, which Mr. Abhisit has been using as a base.

It is not known who carried out the
attack, but the Red-Shirts – a loose coalition of left-wing activists and
supporters of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – had been due to
march there on Sunday.

Neutral venue

Mr. Abhisit went on television on
Sunday morning to say he was open to negotiations, but insisted he would
“not there be there to talk” if the protesters proceeded to march on
the barracks.

“It will not be possible under
this kind of tense circumstance to hold negotiations,” he said. “I
still insist that I am open to negotiation as long as there are no threats,
hostility or pressure.”

Red-Shirt leader Nattawut Saikua
subsequently delayed the rally, saying he wanted to give the government time to
consider an offer of negotiations between small delegations.

Mr. Abhisit’s spokesman later said
the government and the Red-Shirts had agreed to send representatives to the
talks at a neutral venue.

The meeting, at an academic
research institute in Bangkok, was broadcast live on television at the request
of the Red-Shirts.

Sitting across a conference table
from each other, the two teams of three representatives shook hands and then
listened politely while the others set out their positions.

Veera Muksikapong, a member of the
Red-Shirt delegation, stated that the movement respected Mr. Abhisit as an
individual, but then repeated their demand for fresh elections.

“Our request is simple and
direct: dissolve parliament for the people to decide again,” he told the
prime minister.

Mr. Abhisit, flanked by two trusted
aides, said he questioned whether calling elections would heal tensions or
exacerbate them.

“I have to make a decision
based on a consensus from the entire country, not just the Red-Shirts,” he
said. “We have to think: will dissolution really solve the problem?”

The BBC’s Rachel Harvey in Bangkok
says there are still substantial sticking points to be overcome, but after two
weeks of stalemate it seems there may now be signs of movement.

The fact that the talks were
broadcast live is unprecedented in Thailand, where there is a general
perception that political deals are normally done behind closed doors or within
army barracks, Ms Harvey said.

The move comes a day after tens of
thousands of protesters forced soldiers to move away from several key locations
in the capital, where they had been deployed under special security
legislation.

On Thursday, 25 March, Mr. Thaksin
called for a campaign of “civil disobedience”.

The Red-Shirts, formally the United
Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, have sought to distance themselves
from Mr. Thaksin – who lives abroad having fled a two-year jail sentence for a
conflict of interest case – painting themselves as fighters for democracy.

They say Mr. Abhisit came to power
illegitimately in a parliamentary vote after a pro-Thaksin government was
forced to step down. Mr. Thaksin was ousted as prime minister in a military
coup in 2006.

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