Negotiators race to broker compromise as Thai protests escalate

Amid speculation about a military assault on antigovernment protesters, negotiations are under way to end the Thai protests and pave the way for new elections.

By , Correspondent

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    Antigovernment Red Shirt protesters amass in front of their barricade, built with bamboo poles and tyres, as riot police approach them in Bangkok's Silom business district Friday.
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As antigovernment protesters square off against security forces in an increasingly tense standoff, peace negotiators in Thailand are racing to avert another bloody showdown.

In recent days, opponents have battled antigovernment red-shirt protesters barricaded into a shopping district. On Thursday, several grenades landed in a street where pro-government demonstrators had gathered, killing one and injuring dozens of people. The government said grenades had been fired from the red-shirt camp, a claim denied by protest leaders.

Similar grenade attacks have targeted government offices, banks and military bases without causing fatalities. The incident sparked travel warnings by foreign countries, including the United States, and has stirred frustration among Bangkok residents opposed to the six-week-long protest by the mostly rural and working-class red shirts.

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“If they want democracy, they should go to parliament,” says Khemchat Navasakulkiat, an economist, who joined a small pro-government rally Wednesday. He said rowdy protests were hurting the economy and ruining his daily life.

Assault – or compromise?

Amid speculation of an imminent military assault on the fortified red camp, efforts are still under way to broker a compromise that would end the protest and pave the way for new elections. On April 10, clashes between protesters and troops left 25 people dead, the worst political violence in the capital in nearly two decades.

The two sides held televised talks last month that failed to break the deadlock. A stumbling block has been the red-shirt demand for an immediate parliamentary dissolution. In turn, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva proposed a nine-month timetable and the passing of constitutional reforms before new elections.

On Friday, a protest leader said a three-month timetable was acceptable and called for a pullback by troops. And a mediator told foreign correspondents late Thursday that backroom negotiations were inching forward, despite mistrust and divisions in both camps. “Each side wants the other to move first,” says Gothom Arya, a former election commissioner.

But these 11th-hour efforts follow of week of rising provocations, including threats from a royalist protest group to take matters into its hands if the military fails to break up the red-shirt rally. Splits in the military are also growing, according to security sources, a factor that may embolden protesters to overplay their hand.

Any crackdown is likely to encounter dogged resistance, including from armed groups that allegedly fomented the April 10 bloodshed. Opposition politicians warn that the repercussions of another major clash will be severe.

“If the government disperses the crowd using soldiers, it will not end the conflict. It will be even worse,” says Chaturon Chaisaeng, a former deputy prime minister.

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Blog: Red Shirt protesters storm Bangkok TV station; Thai military responds with force
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Thai PM hesitant to enforce Bangkok state of emergency on Red Shirts

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