Thai PM holds second day of talks with Red Shirts

BANGKOK, March 29, 2010 (AFP) - Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said Monday he was open to calling elections before his term ends but would not meet Red Shirts' 15-day deadline as they entered a second day of talks.

The televised negotiations are aimed at ending weeks of disruptive rallies in the Thai capital as the protesters, loyal to deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra, press their demand for Abhisit to dissolve the lower house.

A Red-Shirt supporter walks past a placard during an anti-government protest in Bangkok on March 29, 2010. AFP photo

"If you reaffirm your demand I have no choice but to say it is impossible. I don't reject house dissolution but not today or in the next 15 days because I do not consider that it is a solution," Abhisit told the three Red leaders.

"If you want my government... to call an election before our term has ended, no problem. But we have to talk..." he said.

Polls are due in Thailand in December 2011. A first round of talks, held Sunday at a Bangkok educational institute, ended without breakthrough.

The Red Shirts, supported mainly by Thailand's poor rural population, first gathered two weeks ago in the capital's government quarter, laying open again the country's wide social chasm following months of rival street campaigns.

The red-dressed movement say the government is elitist and undemocratic because it came to power on the back of a parliamentary vote after a controversial court ruling ousted Thaksin's allies from power.

The Reds' populist political icon, former telecoms tycoon Thaksin, made one of his regular speeches by videolink following Sunday's talks, urging the thousands-strong rally to get behind the movement's leaders, who he admitted had been deflated following their face-to-face with the eloquent Abhisit.

Thaksin was ousted in a coup in 2006 and currently lives in Dubai to avoid a jail sentence for corruption. The Reds began rallying on March 14 after a court ruling seized 1.4 billion dollars of Thaksin's fortune.

Their demonstrations have peaked at the weekends, with 80,000 Red Shirts on Saturday forcing troops to retreat from security posts in the heart of Bangkok.

They have staged a series of dramatic stunts in their bid to force Abhisit out, picketing the army barracks where he is holed up and throwing their own blood at his office gates.

The Reds say the British-born, Oxford-educated Abhisit is only able to lead his six-party coalition with military backing.

Abhisit had ruled out talks while the protesters remained on the streets, but changed his mind on Sunday, a move analysts said might hint at a weakening of his support.

"How united is the military in bolstering Abhisit? Could this be why he is meekly agreeing to negotiations?" said Thailand analyst Paul Chambers of Germany's Heidelberg University. "One wonders what he has to gain from it."

While the demonstrations have passed peacefully, security forces have taken few chances, putting a 50,000-strong force on the streets and using a strict security law to police the rallies.

Deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban said the cabinet would decide on Tuesday whether to extend again the Internal Security Act in Bangkok and two neighbouring provinces. It is due to expire on Tuesday.

Suthep said the law, which allows authorities to set up checkpoints, impose curfews and limit movement, could also be enforced to cover a regional summit being held at the weekend on the Thai coast to discuss Mekong river flows.

The capital was hit late Sunday by the latest in a series of explosions at politically significant sites and army buildings.

A woman was injured by the grenade attack at the home of ex-prime minister Banharn Silpa-archa, and six bullet traces were found nearby, police said.

Two other grenades exploded close to a court building in the northern city of Chiang Mai but there were no injuries.

A dozen people were hurt over the weekend when grenades were lobbed at the gate of the barracks where Abhisit has been living and working during the protests.

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