Thailand’s government said on Tuesday the latest demands of protesters camped on the streets of Bangkok were unclear, suggesting there would be no swift end to demonstrations crippling the capital.
The anti-government “red shirts” are refusing to halt their protest, which has paralysed an upmarket commercial district and scared off tourists, until a deputy prime minister faces charges over a clash with troops in April that killed 25 people.
“The government has done its best,” said spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn. “It’s not clear to me what they are demanding so we can’t respond to something we don’t understand.”
The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), as the red shirts are formally known, has accepted a timetable for a Nov. 14 election proposed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
But it has set a new condition — that Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban be charged by police, raising a fresh obstacle to a quick, peaceful end to a crisis that has killed 29 people.
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.
Suthep went to the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) on Tuesday to hear complaints filed against him as head of the Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation, set up to oversee the response of the government and security forces.
“I think they are just dragging this on, looking for more conditions,” Suthep told reporters after meeting DSI officials. “But what we did was not to meet their condition. It was our intention to show our sincerity by entering the judicial process.”
That did not satisfy the red shirts, particularly as the DSI — Thailand’s equivalent to the FBI — comes under the Justice Ministry and they see its head, Tharit Pengdith, as close to the government.
“We want a criminal charge against Suthep as well as Abhisit and we want a truly independent committee to be set up to investigate recent political violence,” said Weng Tojirakarn, one of the group’s leaders.
“We cannot just end the protest without true reconciliation which means they have to take responsibility for their actions.”
The group said Abhisit should also be prosecuted when his immunity ends when the parliamentary session closes on May 21.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said the red shirts, by setting unrealistic demands, might play into the government’s hands.
“People understand the government wants to calm the situation and reconcile with the red shirts. Now the red shirts have come up with their own conditions which the government cannot comply with,” Pavin said.
“WHEN WILL THEY LEAVE?”
On April 10, troops clashed with protesters in a chaotic gun battle in Bangkok’s old quarter. Twenty civilians and five soldiers were killed and more than 800 people wounded.
The government blames the killings on “terrorists” working with the red shirts. In return, the red shirt leaders have denounced the government as “tyrants” and “murderers”.
“Things are looking up on the political front but it’s not over yet,” said Siam City Securities analyst Sukit Udomsirikul. “Yes, the red shirts accepted Abhisit’s plan for a Nov. 14 poll and the timetable for dissolving parliament, but what people really want to know here is: when are they going to leave?”
The red shirts’ conditions for ending the rally include lifting a ban on transmissions of the People’s Channel, a television station used by the red shirts to mobilise supporters.
The mostly rural and working-class protesters accepted the election timetable proposed by the government, including plans to dissolve parliament in the second half of September, but academic Pavin said that was probably irrelevant, given their conditions.
“With the red shirts’ requests, I don’t think November elections are going to happen. The government has said it will only go forward with Nov. 14 elections if they can bring back some kind of normalcy to Bangkok,” he said.
Abhisit does not have to call an election until the end of 2011 but offered the November poll as a way to end the crisis.
He had pushed for a reply by Monday after weekend gun and grenade attacks that killed two policemen and wounded 13 people.
The authorities are faced with the dilemma of how to dislodge thousands of protesters, including women and children, from a fortified encampment sprawling across 3 sq km (1.2 sq mile) of the central Bangkok shopping district.
(Additional reporting by Ploy Ten Kate and Jason Szep; Writing by Alan Raybould and Alex Richardson; )