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Thai officials dismiss protest peace talks

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 18 May 2010

As the Thai government rejects proposed talks to end the political protests, Nick Paton Walsh reports from Bangkok where the military seem set on ending the crisis through strength of will and force.

Thailand protests (Reuters)

The talks broke down as the government called on the "red shirt" protesters to disperse from encampments across Bangkok.

The nine-week political crisis between the military and anti-government protesters, who are seeking to topple Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, has raged at a cost of 67 lives.

Fighting erupted again earlier in the Din Daeng district of a central Bangkok shopping centre where soldiers fired warning shots as protesters burned tyres and hurled petrol bombs - the violence was reportedly less intense than in recent days.

Several thousand protesters, who have adopted red as a protest colour and broadly support former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, remain in a barricaded encampment in the capital's high-end shopping, hotel and diplomatic district and refuse to leave.

What sea change is the military waiting for? Nick Paton Walsh reports:
It is the strangest of standoffs.

I've just taken a drive around the protest. To the north, the barricades are almost deserted. The camp to the south - near Silom, previously the heart of the troubles - has many fewer people in it than before. The west and east of the campsite are also scantily populated. There are a lot of empty sleeping mats on the ground, perhaps more than there are people walking about.

But despite this obvious reduction in crowd size, and the likelihood that a combination of bulldozers and disciplined troops could probably bring this to a relatively unbloody conclusion, the army have not moved in.
They have cited the number of women and children being used, they say, as human shields.

I was sent a video link yesterday of a child being held aloft over the tyres of one barricade, near an area where the army were using live rounds.

We didn't use the images in our report as it seems to mischaracterise the protest: to suggest - as the propagators of the video did - that women and children are actively part of the protestors defence strategy here is untrue.

Of course, holding a child aloft in a live fire zone is criminally stupid, but the families here don't seem coerced and aren't congregating in risky areas. They're just an obstinate part of the protest.

Their presence must play into the army's arithmetic this morning, but there is a growing confusion amongst many observers as to what else the military are waiting for - what sea change they expect to see in the crowd that will significantly ease their job?

It is ebbing, and these low numbers may not last if protestors again see the army's threat yesterday to perhaps act was again not realised. New bids at negotiation have failed to really take off, and the government seems set on ending this through sheer strength of will and force.

The skyline is quiet at the moment, and the protest shrinking. If the military had a well-conceived plan to dispel this crowd - perhaps the tear gas, riot shields and slow pattern of arrests that we've seen used against protests across the world - now eerily feels like the best moment for them to use it.

Government officials criticised a proposal from a group of 64 senators in the 150-member upper house who have offered to mediate peace talks and have urged a ceasefire.

Satit Wongnongtaey, minister to the prime minister, said talks could only take place if the red shirts end their protest - a condition the protesters have consistently rejected.

"The government says we can only negotiate when the protest ends," he said in a televised statement.

Authorities warned the red shirts to leave their barricaded encampment by Monday afternoon, but the deadline came and went, raising questions over how long the military operation would continue and whether talks would work.

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