Thai protesters hold ground on Bangkok's streets
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Anti-government protesters held their ground on the streets of Thailand's capital on Wednesday and said they would stay there until Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva set a date for dissolving parliament.
Protest leaders, who had demanded an immediate election, have agreed to enter into a reconciliation process proposed by Abhisit to end a two-month-old crisis but take issue with a proposed November 14 poll date.
Several thousand "red shirt" protesters remained in their fortified encampment in central Bangkok on Wednesday, showing no sign of moving from the district of upmarket shopping malls and luxury hotels, many of which have been shut for weeks.
"We will stay until Abhisit tells us the date of dissolution," said Worawut Vichaidit, one protest leader.
"The government should withdrew all security forces first. Abhsit has no right to set the election date -- that's the duty of the Election Commission. We don't know how much we can trust the government," he told the crowd from a stage.
A state of emergency has been in force since April 7 and thousands of troops and riot police surround the encampment, out of sight most of the time or lounging around in small groups.
Little movement in the peace process is likely on Wednesday, neither side wanting to be seen as disrespectful to Thailand's revered monarch on Coronation Day, a public holiday.
Monks chanted on the stage in the protest camp and offered prayers for 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
He has been in hospital since last September but made a rare trip out on Wednesday for a royal ceremony, and people lined the roads on the way to the Grand Palace to catch a glimpse of him.
The red shirts mostly back former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006, but more broadly they have developed into a movement of the rural and urban poor opposed to the power wielded by the aristocracy, army, business elite and Bangkok middle class.
They say Abhisit came to power illegitimately in December 2008 when a pro-Thaksin administration fell after a court case and a new coalition was formed with the prodding of the military.
Red shirt leaders say Abhisit does not have the authority to fix an election date and must instead say when he will dissolve parliament -- a technicality analysts said could give the protesters an opportunity to seek a better offer.
"We have agreed unanimously to enter the reconciliation process. We don't want any more loss of lives," Veera Musikapong, chairman of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, the red shirt group, said late on Tuesday.
"We are suspicious about the time-frame, which is within the power of the election commission and not the prime minister," he told supporters at the protest site.
The timing of elections is the most contentious issue in the plan floated by Abhisit on Monday to end a crisis in which 27 people were killed last month and nearly 1,000 wounded.
Analysts say both sides want to be in power in September for a reshuffle of the powerful military and police forces, and for the passing of the national budget.
If Thaksin's camp prevails and is governing at the time of the military reshuffle, analysts expect big changes including the ousting of generals allied with Thailand's royalist elite, a prospect royalists fear could diminish the power of the monarchy.
Thailand's financial markets were closed for Coronation Day, but on Tuesday, before the red shirt questioning of the election date, the stock market jumped 4.4 percent as investors focused on a possible end to the unrest that has devastated tourism, hurt confidence and deterred investment.
An end to the impasse could re-ignite a rally in Thai stocks, which jumped 15 percent on a $1.8 billion wave of foreign buying from mid-February to April 9, the day before clashes in old Bangkok that killed 25 people.
Abhisit has set five broad conditions for reconciliation that must be agreed before any election.
The first is that the monarchy should not be dragged into politics or "violated". That follows government accusations some "red shirts" aim to overthrow the monarchy, which they deny.
The other proposals call for reforms to address social injustice, a big red shirt grievance, an independent body to monitor media bias, an inquiry into recent political violence and reforms that could include constitutional amendments and a review of a five-year ban on politicians allied with Thaksin.