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Bonnie M. Wells

Thailand: Talks Rejected as Bloodshed Continues

(AP) Both government and protesters mourned their dead after savage street fighting killed 21 people in Thailand's capital, but neither side appeared ready to compromise to end a five-year political stalemate that threatens more violence.

Hundreds more were injured when security forces tried Saturday night to clear a demonstrators' base in the historic district from where they've staged disruptive protests in Bangkok for more than a month, seeking to force new elections.

The country's worst political violence in nearly two decades spurred dozens of countries to warn their citizens about visiting Thailand, where tourism is a lifeblood industry.

Bullet casings, pools of blood and shattered army vehicles littered the streets Sunday near a main tourist area where soldiers had pitched nighttime battles with the protesters.

The fighting halted after the army pulled back its troops and initiated an informal truce. However, there was no sign that either side was willing to negotiate the issues underlying the protests.

Jatuporn Prompan, a leader of the "Red Shirt" protest movement, said Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's hands were "bloodied" by the clashes.

"Red Shirts will never negotiate with murderers," Jatuporn announced from a makeshift stage. "Although the road is rough and full of obstacles, it's our duty to honor the dead by bringing democracy to this country."

The government, meanwhile, focused on the immediate issue of public safety.

Government spokesman Panithan Wattanayagorn defended the soldiers' performance and accused the demonstrators of using heavy weapons against them. He said a return to normalcy would be difficult when people do not respect the rule of law, and because any talks on a solution should include other groups in Thai society a complex and contentious process.

The demonstrations are part of a long-running battle between the mostly poor and rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the ruling elite they say orchestrated the 2006 military coup that removed him from power amid corruption allegations.

The protesters, called Red Shirts for their garb, see the Oxford-educated Abhisit as a symbol of an elite impervious to the plight of Thailand's poor and claim he took office illegitimately in December 2008 after the military pressured Parliament to vote for him.

"Within the next two weeks there will be more violence. The standpoint from both sides is clear that negotiation and compromise will not happen," said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "This fight will not end any time soon. It's too complex."

Dr. Tomas Larsson, a political scientist at Cambridge University, said concerns about Thailand's international image could act as a restraint on a more violent crackdown.

"Quashing the protests with disproportionate force, along lines that we have come to associate with the military regime in Burma, would do irreparable damage to Thailand's standing in the international community," he said by e-mail. "But I'm afraid cooler heads may not prevail in the coming days and weeks."

Protesters held a procession for the dead Sunday near their rally site in historic Bangkok. Marching with Buddhist monks, they held aloft several coffins and carried photos of the victims. One mother called her son "a hero" before breaking down in tears.

Earlier, protesters showed off a pile of weapons they had captured from the troops, including rifles and heavy caliber machine-gun rounds. More than half a dozen military vehicles, armored personnel carriers, Humvees and a truck were crippled by the protesters, who ripped the treads off the armored cars.

Some of the heaviest fighting occurred near the backpacker mecca of Khao San Road, where protesters came in throngs Sunday to pose for pictures on top of seized army vehicles. Others strolled around in confiscated army riot gear.

South Korea and China both urged their nationals Sunday to avoid Bangkok. Australia warned its citizens of a "strong possibility of further violence" in Thailand, and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told tourists to stay away from the protests.

The U.S. has not updated a travel alert issued last week when a state of emergency was imposed that advised citizens to be careful in Bangkok.

Apichart Sankary, an executive with the Federation of Thai Tourism Associations, said that if street protests continue the number of foreign visitors could drop to 14.5 million this year, against an earlier official projection of 15.5.

Merchants say the demonstrations have cost them hundreds of millions of baht (tens of millions of dollars), and luxury hotels near one of the sites have been under virtual siege.

Four soldiers and 17 civilians were killed, according to the government's Erawan emergency center. It said at least 874 people were injured. The deaths included Japanese cameraman Hiro Muramoto, who worked for the Thomson Reuters news agency. Reuters said the circumstances of his death were under review.

Police spokesman Lt. Gen. Pongsapat Pongcharoen said an autopsy committee, which would include two Red Shirt members, would examine corpses of those killed, including Muramoto.

(Anti-government demonstrators hit a Thai soldier Saturday, April 10, 2010, in Bangkok.)

(An injured anti-government protester is helped during a rally in Bangkok, Saturday, April 10, 2010.)


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