BANGKOK Thailand's anti-corruption agency weighed charges of negligence against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Thursday as the leader of protests aimed at forcing her from power suggested a televised debate after weeks of refusing to talk.
The charges relate to a disastrous rice subsidy scheme that paid farmers above the market price and has run out of funds, adding to the government's woes as farmers - normally the prime minister's biggest supporters - demand their money.
More than 300 government supporters gathered outside the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) in north Bangkok where the charges were due to be discussed with Yingluck's lawyers, as riot police stood guard inside the complex.
Because of the protest, the hearing had to be moved to a different location. Yingluck, who has stayed mostly out of Bangkok in recent days, did not attend.
The anti-government protesters elsewhere in the city, whose disruption of a general election this month has left Thailand in paralysis, want to topple Yingluck and erase the influence of her brother, ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, seen by many as the real power in the country.
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, known for making dramatic gestures without always following through, said he was willing to appear in a live television debate with Yingluck after weeks of refusing any form of talks.
"Just tell me when and where," he told supporters. "Give us two chairs and a microphone and transmit it live on television so the people can see."
Yingluck gave a guarded response.
"The talks have to have a framework though I am not sure what that framework would look like," she told reporters in the town of Chiang Mai in the north, a Thaksin stronghold. "But many parties have to be involved because I alone cannot answer on behalf of the Thai people."
Boonyakiat Karavekphan, a political analyst at Ramkamhaeng University, said he did not doubt Suthep's sincerity in proposing the talks but that he definitely had some objective.
"Suthep appears to be thinking of a way down," he said. "He isn't oblivious to all the recent violence, and this public talk on television might be his exit strategy. There are growing calls from the public for some sort of dialogue."
SHOW MUST NOT GO ON
The protesters want to set up a "people's council" of unspecified worthy people to spearhead political reform before new polls are held, hoping that will stop parties loyal to the self-exiled Thaksin winning.
They have been on Bangkok's streets since November and have blocked main intersections for weeks to press their case.
The protests have triggered violence in which 21 people have been killed and more than 700 wounded.
Intermittent bursts of gunfire and grenade blasts have become routine at night in the political conflict, which has taken a heavy toll on tourism in the capital, famous for its golden temples and racy bars.
Rock guitarist Eric Clapton has pulled out of a Bangkok concert scheduled for Sunday because of deteriorating security.
The NACC is investigating at least 15 cases against Yingluck and her party members, ranging from allegations of corruption in water projects to moves to make the Senate a fully elected body, which a court has ruled illegal.
It alleges Yingluck was negligent for not ending the rice subsidy program which it says was riddled with corruption. If found guilty, she faces removal from office and a five-year ban from politics.
After a one-hour meeting between her legal team and NACC officials, Yingluck was given until March 14 to defend herself, with the possibility of extending that.
"If the prime minister has evidence, be it paper evidence or witnesses, that can show the charges against her are untrue, she can present it," commission member Wichai Witwiseree told reporters.
He said he could not say how long the investigation would take until the commission had considered her evidence.
Yingluck has denied negligence and accused the agency of bias, noting that a rice corruption case involving the previous administration had made no progress after more than four years.
The crisis pits the mainly middle-class and southern anti-government demonstrators, who are backed by the royalist establishment, against the largely rural supporters of Yingluck and Thaksin from the north and northeast.
Both sides have armed activists and some pro-government leaders have called for Thailand to be divided along north-south political lines, prompting talk of a possible civil war.
The standoff also raises the question of whether the military will step in, as it has many times before, most recently in 2006 to remove Thaksin, although the army chief has ruled out intervention this time.
But it has stepped up its security presence in Bangkok after two nights of violence.
(Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat, Pracha Hariraksapitak and Pairat Temphairojana; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Alan Raybould and Robert Birsel)