BANGKOK — Thailand's prime minister met his political opponents on live television Sunday to try to defuse a crisis that has produced huge demonstrations and sent him fleeing to live at an army base, but the protest leaders said new elections are the only answer.
Viewers across the nation watched three men in red and three in blue — the "Red Shirt" protest leaders, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajva and two advisers — shake hands with strained smiles across a conference table before reiterating their sharply different stances. More talks were set for today, but Sunday's three-hour meeting offered little reason to believe any agreement could be reached.
Vejjajva has repeatedly rejected the protesters' demands that he dissolve Parliament, arguing that calling new elections will not fix Thailand's deep political problems.
"The wound in this country cannot be healed by dissolving Parliament," Vejjajva said. "I have to make a decision based on a consensus from the entire country, including the Red Shirts."
"If I dissolve Parliament, what color shirts will spring up next?" he asked.
The talks were a relatively calm moment after more than two weeks of protests that have drawn more than 100,000 people to peaceful but increasingly confrontational rallies against a government that demonstrators consider illegitimate. The protests have raised concerns of violence and prompted travel warnings from three dozen countries.
"Can we bring a pleasant atmosphere back to the country?" Vejjajva asked during the talks, which included tension, some laughter, a few jokes and a plea from the protesters to take a bathroom break after two hours.
Vejjajva has been sleeping and working at an army base outside Bangkok since the protests started March 12. He had initially refused protesters' demands for talks on live television but reversed course Sunday "to restore peace and minimize the chance of violence," his office said. He met protest leaders at an academic institute in a Bangkok suburb.
The talks were broadcast on a giant screen at the main protest site, in the historic heart of Bangkok, where thousands of red-shirted protesters watched and waited for direction from their leaders.
"For now, we are not going to mobilize any more red shirts," protest leader Jatuporn Prompan said as he exited the talks. "But we hope that tomorrow we get a clearer picture."