Thailand’s Red Shirt protest leaders said today they are willing to negotiate with the government if the army ends its crackdown immediately to put an end to four days of street fighting that has killed 25 people.
“We are willing to negotiate immediately. What’s urgent is to stop the deaths of people. Political demands can wait,” Nattawut Saikua, one of the leaders, told reporters and supporters.
“The government must order a ceasefire and troop withdrawal first, then we will… call back our people who are outside,” he said, referring to hundreds of Red Shirt militants who have been fighting Thai troops.
However, Nattawut said the United Nations must serve as a mediator in the talks because “we don’t see any neutral and just organizations”.
There was no immediate response to the offer from the government, but it raised a glimmer of hope for ending the violence.
The deadly clashes have raised concerns of sustained, widespread chaos in Thailand – a key US ally and south-east Asia’s most popular tourist destination that promotes its easygoing culture as the “Land of Smiles”.
A towering column of black smoke rose over the city today as protesters facing off with troops set fire to tires serving as a barricade.
Elsewhere, they doused a police traffic post with petrol and torched it as sporadic gunfire rang out.
The Red Shirts have occupied a one square mile zone, barricaded by tires and bamboo spikes, in one of the capital’s ritziest areas, Rajprasong, since mid-March to push their demands for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to resign immediately, dissolve Parliament and call new elections.
The Red Shirts, drawn mostly from the rural and urban poor, say the coalition government came to power through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military, and that it symbolises a national elite indifferent to the poor.