Thai government dismisses talks to end deadly protests

BANGKOK (Reuters) – The Thai government dismissed proposed peace talks on Tuesday to end a nine-week crisis that has killed 67 people and threatened to tear the country apart, calling on thousands of anti-government protesters to disperse.

As the prospects for official talks unraveled, fighting erupted again in the Din Daeng district north of a Bangkok shopping area occupied by about 5,000 protesters whose leaders say they are willing to fight to the death to topple Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

“I’d rather stay here, be proud and die fighting than die in my village when I’m old,” said Chamlat Ladlao, a protester from central Lopburi province speaking in the barricaded protest site.

They said they were willing to enter ceasefire talks brokered by senators after five days of chaotic street fighting that has killed 39 people, nearly all civilians, and wounded nearly 300.

But the government said it would only join the talks if the protests end, a condition the red-shirted demonstrators have consistently rejected, leaving talks once again at a dead end with thousands of troops tightening a cordon around them.

Tourists and foreign investors are leaving in droves, squeezing the life out of one of Asia’s most dynamic cities and Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy.

That’s taking a deepening toll on an economy projected to grow as much as five percent this year, Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij told Reuters.

“We have to admit that the long-running protest has been affecting the capability and opportunities for businesses, including those not in the protest area,” he said.

The disruption has already spread to shippers and truckers, according to the Federation of Thai Industries, delaying exports of around 3,000 tonnes of Thai white sugar among other shipments, according to traders and surveyors.

“If things do escalate, manufacturers, especially just-in-time manufacturers, will need to consider their levels of inventory elsewhere,” Steve Vickers, president of FTI-International risk consultancy, told Reuters Insider.

FAINT HOPES FOR TALKS

In Din Daeng, troops fired warning shots as protesters burned kerosene-soaked tires and hurled petrol bombs. At least two protesters were shot, a Reuters witness said. By evening, a Siam City Bank branch was on fire and loud blasts could be heard.

A negotiated ceasefire cannot be ruled out. Three representatives from a group of 64 senators in the 150-member upper house who have offered to mediate the talks met with protest leaders into the night.

Many protest leaders face terrorism charges that carry a maximum punishment of death. Others face less serious charges for breaching state-of-emergency restrictions. Some want amnesty or a guarantee they will receive a fair trial.

They blame the government for the weeks of violence and bloodshed since the demonstrations began on March 12 with flag-waving rallies before descending into Thailand’s deadliest political violence in nearly two decades.

The fighting on Tuesday was the lightest since violence erupted last Thursday with the shooting of a general allied with the red-shirted protesters. The general died days later.

About 3,000 of the mostly rural and urban poor protesters, who have adopted red as a protest color and broadly support former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, remain in a barricaded encampment in Bangkok’s high-end shopping, hotel and diplomatic district, refusing to leave, though looking visibly worn down.

“The army have their guns, but we have the power of the people,” said Boonyeun Predaengnoi, a bank worker from Bangkok who has attended the rally every day.

The red shirts have stockpiled plenty of food and water and supplies are still coming into their camp, even though it is surrounded by troops.

Ominously, they have stocked bags of fertilizer — sometimes used in homemade bombs — and empty bottles to launch crude rockets and are also thought to have guns and grenades.

The bloodshed has been overwhelmingly one sided.

Thousands of troops armed with automatic rifles easily dodge projectiles and open fire with automatic weapons. Journalists, medical rescue workers and innocent bystanders have been killed or wounded. But the military says “militants” are mixed in with protest groups and stationed on buildings shooting people, saying they want to make troops look bad and escalate the conflict.

Authorities are alarmed by red shirts setting fire to kerosene-soaked tires to provide cover during clashes with troops. From Tuesday, buying a tire in Bangkok required police clearance. Buying one for a protester could lead to arrest.

Authorities have seized more than 9,000 tires, said Amnuoy Nimmano, deputy metropolitan police chief.

The mostly rural and urban poor “red shirts” accuse the British-born, Oxford-educated Abhisit of lacking a popular mandate after coming to power in a controversial parliamentary vote in 2008 with tacit backing from the military.

Troops have thrown a cordon around the protest site, a “tent city” at the Rachaprasong intersection, paralyzing the heart of Bangkok. Hundreds of women and children have taken refuge in a temple inside the protest area.

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