BANGKOK Thailand plans to hold a national referendum to end a political crisis over street protests against the government, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej said on Thursday after rejecting calls to quit.
Leaders of the three-month-old campaign in Bangkok to oust Samak dismissed the plan, signaling that political uncertainty would continue to beset the Southeast Asian nation.
Late on Thursday night, a gunman on a motorcycle fired shots at a group of about 100 students marching to protest at Samak's home, wounding two of them, police said.
The campaign to force Samak to quit has been mostly peaceful, but one man was killed and 45 wounded in clashes earlier this week between pro- and anti-government groups, prompting the imposition of emergency rule which gives the army powers to intervene.
Police said the shooting appeared to be an isolated incident and there was no tension in the city.
Samak, desperately seeking a way to end the crisis that has paralyzed his government, said in a radio broadcast that he would urge the Senate to pass a pending referendum law quickly.
"The campaign will last for a month in which both sides can do whatever electioneering they want," he said, adding that the thousands of activists who have barricaded themselves within his official compound could stay there during this period.
But in an another apparent rebuff to Samak's plans, Senate President Prasobsuk Boondej said he did not believe a vote, even a rushed one, would end the crisis.
"The current situation needs an immediate solution to defuse it. We can't afford to wait for the referendum law to pass," he told reporters.
The anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a mainly middle class grouping of royalists and businessmen whose activists took over the prime minister's offices 10 days ago, called the plan a delaying tactic to keep Samak in office.
"The referendum will not solve anything," PAD spokesman Parnthep Pourpongpan said.
The PAD accuses Samak of being an illegal proxy for former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 coup and now in exile in London. Thaksin is widely admired by the poor and in the countryside but despised by Bangkok's middle class.
Earlier, Samak dismissed talk that he would quit or call a snap election to defuse the protests.
"I will not jump ship. I will be in control," he said.
The PAD vowed to press on until Samak was gone.
"As long as he insists on staying on, we will not go anywhere. It doesn't matter how many days or years, or even into the next life," PAD leader Sondhi Limthongkul told supporters.
The government said it was still putting finishing touches to the referendum plan, but Thailand's beleaguered stock market took the proposal as a positive sign and reversed losses earlier in the day to end 0.76 percent higher.
The crisis has taken a toll on Thai stocks and the baht, already buffeted by inflation and a global economic slowdown.
Despite the imposition of emergency rule, the army has refused to use force to evict the protesters, saying it would only make the situation worse.
While that was interpreted as a rebuff to the government, a sputtering strike by public sector employees at utilities, the railways and airports has not helped the PAD's cause.
Besides the referendum, analysts say various other scenarios are also possible, including Samak calling a snap election as a last resort, or caving in to the protesters and resigning.
Another possibility is revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej intervening in the crisis. Such a move would be unlikely to favor the government, even though it would be couched in nuanced terms, espousing the need for national harmony and stability.
(Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Mary Gabriel)