Leader of Thai junta hints at delay in return to elections

Leader of Thai junta hints at delay in return to elections

BANGKOK - Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led a military coup in May, said on Wednesday that elections planned for 2015 will depend on whether wide-ranging national reforms can be completed within a year.

The former army chief's remarks add to growing speculation that a general election promised for late 2015 could be pushed back and delay Thailand's return to democracy following a coup in May.

Prayuth made his remarks to reporters as he prepared to board a plane in Bangkok to attend an Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Milan.

"I outlined a roadmap. The election must come with a new constitution and eleven reform areas," said Prayuth. "Everything depends on the roadmap so we must see first if the roadmap can be completed. Elections take time to organise," he added, giving no further details.

The army seized power in a bloodless coup following months of tumult - a move that was widely condemned by Western nations who urged Thailand to quickly return to elections.

Despite Prayuth hanging up his military uniform - he retired as army chief last month - he has kept a firm grip on power. The military has quashed most dissent, threatening or arresting critics of the coup.

The reforms are partly aimed at ending the political influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a former telecoms tycoon who upset the establishment with populist policies that won him the votes of the poor.

Thaksin was ousted in a previous coup in 2006 and lives in self-imposed exile abroad.

Six months of street protests destabilised a government led by his sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, before she was ordered by a constitutional court to step down in May after being found guilty of abuse of power. The army took over days later, removing the remnants of her government.

Prayuth has outlined a three-phase roadmap designed to mend a country that plunged into political crisis almost a decade ago following the ouster of Thaksin, whose populist policies appealed to voters in Thailand's agrarian heartland.

Last month Prayuth handpicked a 250-member National Reform Council (NRC) - a body to recommend social, political and economic reforms and to approve a new constitution.

Prayuth's first official trip to Europe since he was appointed prime minister in August will be closely watched at home and abroad and could meet with resistance.

One group said it planned to stage an "Anti-Prayuth Event"in Milan to denounce the junta.

"Besides insulting the long struggle of Thai people for representative, democratic governance, Prayuth's criminal regime represents a threat to the development of civil society throughout Southeast Asia," the group said in a Facebook post.

The United States, Australia and the European Union downgraded diplomatic ties in response to the military coup.

A human rights group last month urged the European Union to press Prayuth to protect human rights and restore democracy quickly when he travels to Italy.

Prayuth appeared unruffled as he prepared to board his plane. "Our participation in this meeting is to show that Thailand is still a player on the international stage even though Thailand is in a period of change," Prayuth said.

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