BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai protesters said on Sunday they were ready for U.N.-supervised talks with the government if the army stops shooting after three days of clashes that have killed 25 people and turned Bangkok into a battleground.
The fighting is the latest eruption in a polarizing five-year crisis between the rural and urban poor, known as the red shirts, who accuse an “establishment elite” -- comprising royalists, big business and military brass -- of colluding to bring down two elected governments.
Those governments were led or backed by exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, a graft-convicted populist billionaire ousted in a 2006 coup who is a figurehead of the protest movement.
The red shirts say the politically powerful military influenced a 2008 parliamentary vote, which took place after a pro-Thaksin party was dissolved, to ensure British-born, Oxford-educated Prime Minister Vejjajiva Abhisit rose to power.
Here are some questions and answers on the crisis.
WHAT IS THE PROSPECT OF MORE VIOLENCE?
Analysts say if the military regains control of the streets in the next few days, it stands a good chance of ending the six-week occupation that has closed businesses and thrown tens of thousands out of work in the area. If it does not, the crisis will deepen, and some have expressed concern that Thailand could be edging toward the brink of civil war.
The military appears to have underestimated the resolve of the protesters and has encountered fierce resistance when trying to set up a perimeter around the red shirt encampment at Bangkok’s Rachaprasong intersection.
Soldiers have been authorized to shoot live rounds at protesters within a range of 36 meters (120 ft). Witnesses and local media have reported sniper shots fired at bystanders from rooftops, although it is not clear who they are. Officials say troops will shoot only in self-defense but witnesses say the rules of engagement are not always being followed.
A crackdown on the encampment could turn into a bloodbath. It will be difficult to clear the sprawling site that has at least eight access points, is surrounded by office towers, hotels and malls, and has a skytrain line overhead.
An estimated 5,000 people, many of them women and children, are hunkered down in the Rachaprasong encampment, ringed with walls of tires, bamboo stakes and concrete.
Mobile generators provide power to the encampment. Its residents are tapping into fire hydrants for water, but food supplies are dwindling, with trucks prevented from coming in.
Militant red shirts are believed to have assault rifles and grenades stashed away. Shadowy black-clad gunmen, referred to as “terrorists” by the government for their involvement in deadly clashes on April 10, have not been very visible -- yet.
IS THERE ANY CHANCE OF A TRUCE?
Rhetoric has hardened on both sides, but government and red shirt sources say back channels of communication are still open.
The red shirts extended an olive branch on Sunday with their offer of U.N.-moderated talks if the military stops firing and pulls back. The government quickly dismissed the offer.
“If they really want to talk, they should not set conditions like asking us to withdraw troops,” said Korbsak Sabhavasu, the prime minister’s secretary-general. “It’s a positive sign but if there is going to be a talk, there has to be more detail. But they cannot make demands if they want to negotiate.”
The government was unlikely to accept U.N. or any foreign involvement in the talks. Last month, the Thai foreign minister scolded diplomats for even meeting red shirt leaders. Several embassies are near the red shirt encampment.
Civil society groups brought the government and the protesters together in March but the talks faltered over when to hold elections.
Abhisit offered a November 14 election -- a year ahead of schedule -- along with “a roadmap to reconciliation,” but the red shirts came up with additional demands and he withdrew his offer.
Thailand should consider help from neutral figures from the international community, drawn perhaps from Nobel peace laureates, the International Crisis Group said last month.
Thailand should also begin negotiations on an interim government of national unity and preparations for elections, the conflict resolution group said.
A government spokesman said the Red Cross and other NGOS were in talks with red shirt leaders and the police about bringing out women, children, the sick and elderly by 3 p.m. (0800 GMT) on Monday.
The protesters have a 22-member leadership council and don’t always speak in one voice. They are split between moderates who favor ending the protest and hardliners who want to press on. Some of the leaders face terrorism charges punishable by sentences including death, so feel little incentive to give up.
A withdrawal by the military would be a disaster for the government and is therefore unlikely. If the violence continues unabated and paralyses Bangkok into next week, the government may have no choice but to propose some kind of settlement if it cannot put down the escalating civil unrest.
WHERE ARE THE CLASHES?
The main flashpoints were several kilometers north and southeast of the main protest encampment.
At least 2,000 protesters massed on Saturday in the working-class neighborhood of Klong Toey near the business district, where a truck has been turned into a makeshift stage, throwing up the possibility of a second rallying site.
Another group of demonstrators had gathered near Victory Monument north of the Rachaprasong encampment at the weekend.
Many people have responded to calls on a red-shirt radio station urging protesters to reinforce the hundreds that had gathered over the past three days, facing off with troops now located several kilometers away.
Local media also reported large but peaceful gatherings of protesters on the outskirts of the city.
Editing by Paul Tait
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.