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
"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 tonnes
of Thai rice, providing funds to help pay farmers who have been
protesting because a state rice-buying program has run out of money.
On February 4, China scrapped a deal to buy 1.2 million tonnes 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 program. The case could eventually see her forced from
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," he said. "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," he
said, 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," he said.
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
[to top of second column]
MORE VOTING ON SUNDAY
The crisis broadly pits Bangkok's middle-class and southern
opposition supporters, backed by the royalist establishment, against
the largely rural supporters of Yingluck and Thaksin.
After a period of calm following Yingluck's election win in 2011,
opposition swelled when her government tried to push through a
political amnesty that would have let Thaksin return from
self-imposed exile without having to serve a jail sentence for
graft. He says the charges were politically motivated.
Thaksin was toppled by the army in 2006. The military has tried to
stay above the fray this time but Yingluck is still facing multiple
challenges from the courts, which threw out two governments allied
to Thaksin in 2008.
On Thursday, she was served with charges relating to the rice scheme
that has failed, leaving hundreds of thousands of farmers unpaid and
costing taxpayers billions of dollars.
Yingluck faces removal from office and a five-year ban from politics
if she is found guilty. She has until March 14 to try to refute the
charges, after which the anti-corruption agency will decide whether
to take the case further.
She called an election for February 2 to try to end the crisis but
it was disrupted by the protesters.
The Election Commission will try to hold polls on Sunday in five
provinces where voting was not completed. Election re-runs planned
for April in other provinces have been suspended pending a court
decision on procedures.
The protesters want to set up a "people's council" of unspecified
worthy people to force through political and electoral changes
before a new general election is held, hoping that will stop parties
loyal to Thaksin from winning.
Although Suthep still manages to draw big crowds when he marches
around the city, the number of protesters has dwindled and many
ministries have been able to reopen.
Critics have accused the military of siding with the protesters, a
charge denied by army chief Prayuth.
"If indeed we sided with the protesters we would already be with the
protesters. We have sent soldiers to look after security around
protest sites for everyone's benefit."
(Additional reporting by Kittipong Thaicharoen and Orathai Sriring;
Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Robert Birsel)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.