BANGKOK – The leader of Thailand’s anti-government protest movement said Thursday he is willing to negotiate to end the country’s political crisis if the prime minister is willing to talk with him live, one-on-one, on every national television station.
The offer by Suthep Thaugsuban came as increasing violence associated with his group’s months-long protest has prompted fresh calls for negotiations. The protesters say they want Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign to make way for an unelected interim government to institute anti-corruption reforms.
Yingluck, who is in northern Thailand, responded that her government wants negotiations, but that the protesters must stop blocking elections and other constitutional processes.
Suthep’s offer was an evident ploy to offset criticism of his long-standing position that his movement would refuse negotiations, even as the government said it was open to them.
He placed several other conditions on talks. These included a refusal to discuss an amnesty for Yingluck’s brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006 and lives in self-imposed exile to avoid serving a two-year jail term for a 2008 corruption conviction that he says was politically motivated. Since the coup, Thaksin’s supporters and opponents have taken to the streets for extended periods in a sometime violent power struggle.
“The most important thing that everyone wants is the end of the protests and for the election to carry on, or else we cannot answer the questions from the international community of how we can protect democracy,” Yingluck told reporters in her hometown of Chiang Mai. She said her government was open to almost any approach, but deferred the question of whether she was willing to hold live televised talks.
The elections held earlier this month were disrupted by protesters and remain incomplete.
Although the protests have failed to meet self-proclaimed deadlines for success, pressure has been increasing on Yingluck from other quarters.
Several legal challenges could force her from office, and the judiciary has a record of hostility toward her and a willingness to bend over backward to rule in support of the protesters.
Thailand’s anti-graft commission on Thursday summoned Yingluck to hear charges of negligence for allegedly mishandling a government subsidy program. Her supporters blocked access and chain-locked one of the gates to the agency’s headquarters, so Yingluck’s legal representatives met commission members elsewhere to accomplish the formalities.
Yingluck could eventually face impeachment by the Senate or criminal charges if the National Anti-Corruption Commission delivers a final ruling against her. The agency is expected to issue its decision in one to two months.
The rice subsidy program — a flagship policy of Yingluck’s administration that helped win the votes of millions of farmers — has accumulated losses of at least $4.4 billion and has been dogged by corruption allegations. Payments to farmers have been delayed by many months.
Political violence has worsened recently, with shootings and grenade attacks at protest sites. Twenty-two people have died and hundreds have been hurt since November. The deaths of four children in attacks this past weekend caused widespread shock and sorrow, but seem to have only hardened the positions of both sides.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his increasing concern and reiterated his condemnation of the escalation of violence. He urged the parties to “engage as soon as possible in meaningful and inclusive dialogue toward ending the crisis and advancing genuine reform,” U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
“The secretary-general expresses his readiness to assist the parties and the Thai people in any way possible,” he said.
Caretaker Foreign Minister Surapong Towichakchaikul said this week that he would suggest inviting Ban to visit Thailand to talk about how to resolve the political conflict.