Red March on Bangkok - PM Abhisit Talks With Red Shirt Leaders UPDATED

UPDATE: Added two links, one with full video of the talk and Bangkok Pundit's summary of what's been said, down below. As we enter the third week of the anti-government protests by the red shirts, Sunday witnessed an interesting turn of events as prime minister Abhisit Vejjajva agreed to talk with the red shirt leaders, live on nationwide TV!

This is so far to a degree astonishing, since at the beginning of the day everything looked like another protest day with no concrete movement in any direction whatsoever. In the morning the red shirts have rallied at the 11th infantry regiment (again), where PM Abhisit resides since the start of the protests. Abhisit himself was not present at the military base, who hosted his weekly TV show from a different location, saying he would "not bow to ultimatums." But then, about two hours later...

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is ready to hold negotiations with representatives of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, and his secretary-general Korbsak Sabhavasu is coordinating with the UDD to make the necessary arrangements, PM's Office Minister Sathit Wongnongtoey said in a televised statement on Sunday morning.

The decision came as a large number of red-shirt protesters were massing outside the 11th Infantry Regiment camp where Mr Abhisit has been staying for the past two weeks since the rally began.

Mr Sathit said the government wants the situation in the country to return to normal as soon as possible.

(...) Mr Korbsak said the mass gathering of red shirts in front of the 11th Infantry Division camp was considered by the prime minister as a threat and intimidation. He said the withdrawal of the red shirts would improve the climate.

On Sunday morning, the UDD gave the prime minister until 10.15am to arrange the talks.  Soon after this, Mr Sathit appeared on television to tell the public of the latest developments.

"Govt, reds edge towards talks", Bangkok Post, March 28, 2010

Thanong Khanthong of The Nation (yes, that bloke!) had his very own theory even before the announcement.

Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, the defence minister, and Gen Anupong Paochinda warned Abhisit that he has to step forward to hold talks with the Red Shirts. Otherwise, the Military would abandon their support of the Abhisit government and the Coalition would be asked to form a new government with Pheu Thai Party as a core.

The prime minister must have felt that he is being forced into the corner. (...) The Democrats' bargaining power appears to be eroding. The soldiers, who come out of the barracks under the Internal Security Act, are getting tired and feeling very edgy. If the Red Shirts provoke the Military further, there could be accidental shooting by one of the soldiers. The Military are afraid that if their soldiers were to shoot the Red Shirts first, they and the government would immediately lose legitimacy.

"Abhisit Is Being Forced Into the Corner", by Thanong Khanthong, Nation Blog, March 28, 2010

At 4 PM in the afternoon both sides met at a neutral location, the King Prajadhipok’s Institute, an educational center on the outskirts of Bangkok. Given the very sudden nature of the events, some negotiations preluded the talks. The government side was represented by prime minister Abhisit, secretary-general Korbsak Sabhavasu and Democrat Party executive Chamni Sakdiset. For the red shirts Veera Musikhapong, Jatuporn Prompan and Weng Tojirakarn sat at the table.

After three hours of calm talks, both sides agreed to postpone until Monday at the same time. Overall this talk laid the fundamental arguments of both sides. It cannot be expected that a breakthrough deal would occur right at the first meeting, but the fact that both sides were able to sit down and make their points clear to everybody is encouraging. Bangkok Post has written a quick summary of the talking points.

The biggest surprise for me then was that the entire talk was televised on national TV, one of the pre-talk demands by the red shirts. Almost all free-tv channels broadcasted the meeting live and even though I can imagine that many people (read: not politically interested) simply changed channels or switched off, the availability of transparency during such an important turning point is no doubt a good thing. The cameras might have led the participants to leave any hostility and polemics at the door. Also, as an analyst on ThaiPBS said, it gave supporters of the red shirts and yellow shirts (who have been very quiet during the past weeks) to hear the central points of both sides, since they tend to watch and listen to media organizations of their own peer. (The Christian Science Monitor has written a piece about partiality in Thai media.)

Where are we now? From a factual standpoint we moved nowhere! The deadlock between both fractions has hardly loosen, no resolutions were made during the first talk and the central demands stayed the same. In fact Jatuporn, one of the red shirt leaders at the table, gave Abhisit two weeks time to consider dissolving the house and later in the evening on the rally stage declared that there'll be just a 'yes' or a 'no'. This reduces the talk on Monday to a do-or-die situation. A walkout or any similar acts by the red shirt tomorrow would swiftly destroy any momentum. But what we can gain from Sunday's landmark talks is that these people are ready to sit down and discuss why we got into the political mess in the first place. A quick solution is still far, far away but in these tense times, it's the little things that count.

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