BANGKOK Anti-government protesters in Thailand refused to leave the streets of Bangkok on Friday, but hinted they may be able to strike a deal in coming days to end a deadly crisis that has stifled the economy.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has put forward a plan to end the rallies that have crippled the capital and scared off tourists, but it remained in limbo as rival factions squabbled over details, including a proposed early election in November.
"We are not calling off protests as yet," Jaran Ditapichai told Reuters after meeting fellow leaders. "We have a proposal for Abhisit and we will talk about it in more detail later."
The stand-off has paralyzed the commercial heart of the capital for nearly two months, but its roots stretch back to the prime ministership of Thaksin Shinawatra -- a populist tycoon ousted in a 2006 military coup -- and the deep social divisions it exposed between Thailand's traditional elite and rural masses.
Thai stocks fell 2.1 percent, but other Asian markets were also in negative territory amid worries about the fallout from euro zone debt problems. The baht was little changed.
Thai stocks have now given up the gains scored on Tuesday, when the index jumped 4.4 percent in reaction to Abhisit's reconciliation plan.
"The deal is still not off the table. There're still more complications, more talks to look forward to. This stalemate could actually last for a while," said Kiatkong Decho, a strategist at CIMB Securities.
STAY OR GO?
Abhisit offered to dissolve parliament in the second half of September ahead of an election on November 14 as part of a plan to end a crisis in which 27 people have died and more than 1,000 been wounded in clashes.
But that failed to convince the mostly rural and urban poor "red shirt" protesters who have refused to budge from the commercial district, where posh malls and luxury hotels have been forced to close their doors since April 3.
"I am waiting for the leaders to say if we are celebrating or whether we should fight on," said Satien Wuttichai, a 39-year-old truck driver who joined the protest in early April.
"I am ready for either but this waiting is frustrating. But we have to be patient."
Far from packing up their camp, which sprawls across 3 sq km (1.2 sq miles) of an upmarket commercial district in central Bangkok, the red shirt leaders said they would bus in more supporters from their northeastern stronghold.
Around 5,000 protesters were at the site on Friday afternoon. Numbers usually grow during the day into the cooler evenings, before dropping to a few thousand who spend the night behind the fortified barricades.
A local business group put revenue losses in the area since April 3 at about 174 million baht ($5.4 million) a day.
There were mixed signals from the red shirt camp that broadly backs Thaksin, who won popularity among the poor with policies of such as cheap healthcare and village microcredit, but appalled the Bangkok elite and the middle classes who turned against him a few years after he came to power in 2001, accusing him of corruption, autocracy, and disloyalty to the monarchy.
"Most leaders are ready to leave. A couple of leaders are still concerned that leaving the streets now would mean failure for the movement," said protest leader Kwanchai Praipanna.
Complicating the picture, Abhisit faces some opposition from the government's traditional backers after the yellow shirt group, which broadly represents the anti-Thaksin royalist elite and the middle classes, condemned his plan.
The yellow shirts, whose eight-day occupation of Bangkok's airport in 2008 helped undermine a Thaksin-allied government, said Abhisit should resign if he cannot enforce the law and end the occupation of the shopping district.
The red shirts, who had demanded immediate elections when their latest protest rally started in mid-March, say the ruling coalition lacks a popular mandate after coming to power in a controversial parliamentary vote 17 months ago.
Protest leaders are demanding a specific date for dissolution of parliament -- a technicality analysts said was probably an excuse to negotiate a better deal, including a guarantee they would not face terrorism and anti-monarchy charges.
(Additional reporting by Ploy Ten Kate and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Writing by Alex Richardson; Editing by Martin Petty)