Suthep 'to keep an eye' on reforms

Suthep 'to keep an eye' on reforms
Former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban.

The leader of street protests that paralysed Thailand's previous government and triggered a military coup last year has pledged to keep watch over ongoing reforms as part of his work in a new foundation.

A stubble-scalped Suthep Thaugsuban, who emerged yesterday after a year-long monastic hiatus, said at a press conference: "We want this government to complete reforms before elections, no matter how long that would take."

He promised that the People's Democratic Reform Foundation - named after the coalition of groups that blockaded Bangkok's streets, invaded government compounds and sabotaged an election in a bid to topple the Puea Thai party-run government last year - would no longer resort to such methods to achieve its objectives.

The fiery former deputy prime minister stressed that they would not cause any trouble for the National Council for Peace and Order, the name of the ruling junta. But he said "whenever we disagree, we would let them know in writing".

Mr Suthep, wearing a shirt bearing the Thai-flag logo adopted as a symbol of last year's protest movement, was flanked by the co-leaders of last year's protests as he made the announcement.

Military officers reportedly observed the press conference to check if it breached the ongoing ban on political gatherings.

Mr Suthep is emerging at a sensitive time for the military government, which is grappling with a continual slide in the kingdom's economic outlook.

The central bank projects a full-year growth of 3 per cent, a showing that could worsen should the European Union deem Thailand's latest efforts to eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing inadequate and impose a ban on imports of the kingdom's seafood.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha had earlier indicated that an election would be held in September next year, though observers foresee further delays. A draft Constitution is expected to be put up for a referendum next year, only after which polls can be held.

The contentious nature of the draft charter - which critics say reduces the role of the electorate - could mean a protracted debate before such a plebiscite is held.

In the meantime, the military has kept a tight lid on political expression and dissent.

One of the foundation's declared missions is to clear misconceptions about the situation in Thailand on the international stage, a task that is expected to fall on former foreign minister Kasit Piromya.

Mr Kasit, a senior Democrat Party member who plans to resign from his official positions in his party, told The Straits Times the government "has not done enough" in explaining the origins of Thailand's political crisis.

The almost decade-long period of political conflict that preceded the coup last year - played out against anxiety over a looming royal transition - is often described as a tussle between Thailand's conservative elites and its rural masses, who have used their electoral muscle to repeatedly vote into power parties aligned with exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

But last year's protesters argue that they were agitating against a deeply corrupt governing system. Mr Kasit said the foundation will also speak out if it feels the government has deviated from reforms. "Whatever they do, they do, but if we have a better idea, we will tell the public."

This article was first published on July 31, 2015.
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