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Red shirt protesters, Thai PM cling to hard lines despite talks

BANGKOK, THAILAND — Antigovernment protest leaders resumed peace talks today with Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, one day after a televised first meeting between the two sides.

Mr. Abhisit’s decision to sit with his red-shirted opponents, who have rallied for two weeks in the capital, came after edgy weekend standoffs between protesters and soldiers that raised the stakes on negotiations. Security forces are also on alert after a string of unexplained (and mostly victimless) bombings of military and government targets.

But the two political camps remain apart on when and how to hold fresh elections, a key demand of the protesters. Abhisit, who took power 15 months ago after a court dissolved three ruling political parties, has resisted calls for a snap ballot.

He has until the end of 2011 to call elections, and has said he is ready to do so after long-delayed constitutional amendments are completed. Opponents say any changes can wait until after the vote.

Possible compromise
Any compromise must balance between the mounting public pressure to hold elections and resistance by Abhisit’s government and its military backers to a potentially unfavorable vote. One way forward could be a delayed election timetable that gives red-shirt leaders a reason to end their rally with a promise to return if the government doesn’t deliver.

“It has to be a win-win situation,” says Pithaya Pookaman, a former lawmaker and red-shirt supporter.

Sunday’s talks closely resembled a televised debate, with both sides presenting their arguments. A senior aide to Abhisit said he wanted to get down to negotiations, but cautioned that it was difficult as neither side wanted to show weakness. “This deal is out in the open,” he says.

Bombs and tension
Thousands of red shirts converged Sunday morning on a military base where Abhisit is staying. The move raised fears of another confrontation with troops, after an edgy standoff the previous night outside a government compound guarded by soldiers. But the protesters left after the peace talks were announced.

Protest leaders say their cause is peaceful and disavow any links to recent bombings, which appear intended to stir tensions without causing casualties. Nobody has been arrested for any of the attacks, which have included grenades fired into military bases.

The government has not sought to disperse the red shirts, who have attracted more than 100,000 people to weekend rallies, among the largest in four years of turmoil. They began escalating ahead of the February 27 verdict against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who lives in exile. Thailand’s Supreme Court confiscated $1.4 billion and it ruled Mr. Thaksin had become “unusually rich” in office.

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