Thai army chief to press political rivals on compromise

Thai army chief to press political rivals on compromise
Thai soldiers stand guard at the Army Club where Thailand's army chief is holding a meeting with groups and organisations with a central role in the crisis in the country.

BANGKOK - Thailand's military chief will press rival political factions on Thursday to end a drawn-out power struggle that has polarised 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 per cent in January-March from the previous three months, largely because of the unrest, adding to fears it 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 the media, including partisan television channels, and warned people not to spread inflammatory material on social media.

Prayuth called on the two sides in closed-door talks on Wednesday 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.

Leaders of the ruling Puea Thai Party and the opposition Democrat Party, the Senate leader and the five-member Election Commission joined a second round of talks at an army base in Bangkok on Thursday. "The government wants the problem solved in a democratic way which includes a government that comes from elections," acting Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan told reporters.

Niwatthamrong, who was not attending the talks himself, added that his administration could not resign as its enemies are demanding as that would contravene the constitution.

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 mobilise 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.

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