Thai minister rejects talks with protest leader

Suthep Thaugsuban suggested he have a televised debate with PM Yingluck Shinawatra.

FILE: Demonstrators rallied outside ministries to put pressure on Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step down. Picture: AFP.

BANGKOK - A senior Thai minister rejected a proposal for talks from the leader of an anti-government protest movement on Friday as demonstrators rallied at ministries to put pressure on Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step down.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban had suggested that he and Yingluck should hold a televised debate.

"Yingluck is the legitimate leader of the country and Suthep is a man with warrants for his arrest who heads an illegal movement. The prime minister should not talk to Suthep," said Labour Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung, who oversees a state of emergency imposed last month.

"Suthep is only proposing negotiations, even though he dismissed them before, because protest numbers are dwindling."

The protesters have blocked big intersections in the capital, Bangkok, since mid-January and forced many ministries to close as part of a four-month campaign to push out Yingluck and eradicate the political influence of her brother, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, seen as the real power in Thailand.

The crisis is hurting the economy with confidence and domestic demand both down. Data on Friday showed factory output fell 6.41 percent in January from a year before.

In some good news for the government, China is to buy 400,000 tons of Thai rice, providing funds to help pay farmers who have been protesting because a state rice-buying programme has run out of money.

On 4 February, China scrapped a deal to buy 1.2 million tons of rice because of an investigation by the Thai anti-graft agency into various deals between Thailand and China.

Yingluck was on Thursday served with charges of negligence relating to the rice programme. The case could eventually see her forced from office.

Violence is on the increase, with almost daily gun and grenade attacks around Bangkok protest sites by unidentified people, and 23 people have been killed since November.

Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, asked by reporters if the violence would trigger a coup, remained noncommittal and expressed exasperation at the question being put to him time and again.

"We must not discuss this every day, I can't promise whether there will be a coup or not."

Protest leader Suthep's debate offer on Thursday came after weeks of refusing to talk.

However, in a speech to supporters later, he showed his more combative side, blaming Yingluck for weekend attacks on protesters in which five people were killed, including four children.

"You have murdered four young, innocent children, Yingluck," challenging her supporters in the rural north and northeast to a fight in the capital.

"Come to Bangkok and try to start a civil war."

Yingluck, speaking in the northern city of Chiang Mai, gave a guarded response to the idea of a debate on Thursday.

Talk of a possible civil war has picked up recently but Prayuth said he doubted that outcome, "We must control the situation using the law."