Thai army chief to press political rivals on compromise
(Reuters) – Thailand’s military chief will press political rivals on Thursday to end a drawn-out power struggle that has polarized the country and battered its economy, after neither side gave ground in a first round of army-brokered talks.
Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha declared martial law on Tuesday to prevent more violence between government supporters loyal to ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and anti-government protesters backed by the royalist establishment.
Thailand’s gross domestic product contracted 2.1 percent in January-March from the previous three months, adding to fears the country is stumbling into recession.
The army has rejected accusations that martial law amounts to a coup.
It has let rival protesters remain on the streets but banned them from marching to prevent clashes. It has also clamped down on media, including partisan television channels, and warned people not to spread inflammatory material on social media.
Prayuth has called on the two sides to agree on a compromise that is likely to hinge around the appointment of an interim prime minister, political reforms and the timing of an election.
“I want to see every problem settled within this forum before I retire,” the Nation newspaper quoted Prayuth as telling the rivals at a first round of talks on Wednesday. He is due to step down in September. “I don’t want my juniors to take up this job.”
Wednesday’s talks ended inconclusively with neither side backing down from their entrenched positions, participants said. Another session is scheduled for Thursday.
Former telecommunications tycoon Thaksin has lived in self-exile since 2008 to avoid a jail term for graft, but still commands the loyalty of legions of rural and urban poor and exerts a huge influence over politics, most recently through a government run by his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.
Yingluck was forced to step down as premier by a court two weeks ago, but her caretaker government remains nominally in power, despite the declaration of martial law and six months of sometimes violent protests aimed at ousting it.
“The administration is limited in its capacity to mobilize fiscal resources in order to stimulate economic growth, highlighting the importance of a resolution to ongoing political turmoil,” Moody’s Investors Service said in a report.
REFORMS OR ELECTION?
The instability in Thai politics stretches back to Thaksin’s premiership, which began with a landslide election victory in 2001 – repeated in 2005 – and ended with his ouster in military coup on 2006.
The protesters say Thaksin is a corrupt crony capitalist who commandeered Thailand’s fragile democracy, using taxpayers’ money to buy votes with populist giveaways.
They want a “neutral” interim prime minister to oversee electoral reforms aimed at ridding the country of the Shinawatra family’s political influence before any new vote.
The government sees a general election that it would likely win as the best way forward and it has proposed polls on August 3, to be followed by reforms.
Public sector workers have joined the campaign to get the government out and began a strike on Thursday, although one union leader said there would be no disruption to utilities, transport or other public services in Bangkok.
Anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister in a government run by the pro-establishment Democrat Party, told his supporters victory was imminent.
“We will show our full strength on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. On Monday, prepare a candle each … we will light them and announce our victory,” Suthep told a rally near the U.N. regional headquarters in central Bangkok.
Thaksin’s “red shirt” loyalists, rallying in Bangkok’s outskirts, have warned of violence if the caretaker government is thrown out.
Twenty-eight people have been killed and 700 injured since this latest chapter in the power struggle between Thaksin and the royalist elite flared up late last year.
Both sides have armed activists in their ranks and the army is trying to prevent more weapons falling into their hands with a ban on the transport of arms and checks on roads.
“We now have three main checkpoints on major roads leading to Bangkok checking for weapons,” Paradorn Pattanathabutr, a security adviser to the prime minister, told Reuters.
Life in Bangkok was going on largely as normal with no heavy troop presence. Paradorn said 10,000 police who had been deployed at protest sites had been taken off the streets.