- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 31, 2010

BANGKOK | After smearing human blood on the gates of official buildings and the prime minister’s home, and using it to paint graffiti on banners, Red Shirt protesters rejected the government’s offer on Monday to hold elections in nine months and instead demanded that parliament be dissolved in 15 days.

The protesters’ use of red flags and revolutionary rhetoric demanding a “class war” is causing anxiety among targeted “aristocrats,” but it has amused some Russian diplomats.

“In the Russian Embassy, they told the joke that the difference between the [Bolshevik] Reds in Russia and the Red Shirts in Bangkok is that the Russians won their [1917] revolution,” said one Russian who asked not to be identified.

“I am not saying ‘no’ to parliament’s dissolution. I am just saying, ‘Not today or within 15 days,’” Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told the Red Shirts’ delegation during a second day of nationwide televised negotiations on Monday.

On Tuesday, the protesters said they would not resume talks with the government and promised to resume large-scale street demonstrations. Mr. Abhisit, however, said talks would continue. He had offered to dissolve the legislature by the end of the year.

“We will continue to fight, in a nonviolent way, for parliament’s dissolution,” said Nattawut Saikua, one of three Red Shirts who attended the talks on Sunday and Monday.

Up to 100,000 Red Shirts, officially known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, have swarmed Bangkok during anti-government demonstrations that began March 12.

Dressed mostly in red, they created a sprawling outdoor camp in a main intersection downtown, where they erected a stage and attracted vendors to care for them.

Many of the Red Shirts have sunburned faces and rural ways that contrast with Bangkok’s often pampered residents, including people in the Thai capital who use ubiquitous “skin whitening” beauty products to impress upon others that they do not work outdoors, and are wealthier than most rural folk.

During the mostly peaceful protests, about a dozen unexplained grenade blasts rocked Bangkok, resulting in a handful of injuries.

The small explosions hit mostly banks, military bases, ministry buildings and other sites linked to the government and army.

Bangkok, however, remains tranquil, capitalist-friendly and hedonistic, welcoming international investors and tourists.

The Red Shirts claim Mr. Abhisit is a “puppet” of Thailand’s U.S.-trained and politicized military.

This Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation is a staunch non-NATO U.S. ally.

Mr. Abhisit has been working and sleeping in a military base since the protests began, apparently fearing the Red Shirts, but also giving the appearance that he is under the sway of the army.

Many Thais also are concerned about how the crisis is interpreted by the country’s ill, 82-year-old constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The king has spoken publicly during severe political confrontations in past decades, but he has been hospitalized for the past several months and remained mostly silent about the Red Shirts.

Thailand has harsh laws against any statements that can be interpreted as critical of the monarchy.

Several Thai and foreign journalists, and others, have suffered from police and court cases against them during recent years.

As a result, not many people are openly discussing the king in connection to the political deadlock, though some speculate that it probably saddens him to see the country so divided.

Gen. Anupong Paojinda, the army’s commander in chief, helped the military stage a bloodless coup in September 2006 that toppled a popular elected prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

The coup’s aftermath still haunts Thailand, with frequent fears of another pending putsch.

Gen. Anupong and his colleagues are perceived as hoping Mr. Abhisit can cling to power until September, when Gen. Anupong is due to retire and promote his favored replacement, Deputy Army Commander in Chief Gen. Prayuth Chanocha, and other officers.

The military apparently worries that if an election is held before September and the Red Shirts’ preferred candidates win as expected, the new government will absolve Mr. Thaksin and cancel the military’s promotions.

After the army ousted Mr. Thaksin, the military purged several officers loyal to the prime minister and replaced them with officers who supported the coup or opposed Mr. Thaksin’s return.

In February, the Red Shirts complained to the U.S. Embassy after it gave a visa to Gen. Anupong to visit the United States. They said the visa should have been withheld because of Gen. Anupong’s role in the coup.

“U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. [George] Casey invited his counterpart, Gen. Anupong, to visit the U.S.,” a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said at the time.

Apparently mindful of Gen. Anupong’s September retirement, Mr. Abhisit suggested a December deadline for dissolving parliament when he and two other government officials met with a three-member Red Shirt delegation for televised talks on Sunday and Monday.

“We only have one demand … dissolve parliament” within 15 days, Red Shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan said Sunday. The deadline was repeated Monday.

The Red Shirts also want nationwide elections 45 days after parliament’s dissolution.

The two sides may meet for further talks later this week.

Mr. Thaksin, meanwhile, is both a blessing and a curse for the Red Shirts, who adorn their banners with his face and campaign for his return.

He is a fugitive in self-exile, sometimes in Dubai or Montenegro, dodging a two-year prison sentence for a conflict-of-interest case involving the sale of Bangkok real estate to his wife at the time.

On Feb. 26, in a separate case, Thailand’s Supreme Court seized $1.4 billion in frozen assets from Mr. Thaksin and his family for corruption linked to an international telecommunications deal.

His attorneys launched an appeal.

Mr. Thaksin’s five years as prime minister include the grisly extrajudicial executions of more than 2,000 people during his harsh “war on drugs” that have never been openly investigated, despite demands by Thai and international human rights groups.

He also presided over a deadly military campaign against minority ethnic Muslim Malay-Thai separatists in the south, during which 78 Muslim men were suffocated in army trucks, in addition to other suspected human rights violations.

Mr. Abhisit does not hold such support because his base is mostly among the ruling elite and middle class, especially in Bangkok. He leads a relatively small Democrat Party, and gained power by cobbling together a coalition within parliament in December 2008.

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