BANGKOK - Thailand's military said on Friday it will set up "reconciliation centres" across the country aimed at healing a decade of political division that has often spilled into violence.
Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha took power in a coup on May 22 saying he had to end the latest violent spasm of a struggle between the royalist establishment and an upstart power network headed by billionaire former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Some loyalists of the self-exiled Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup, expect the army to bring in electoral and other reforms over coming months aimed at ending Thaksin's political influence once and for all.
But the army says it is being even-handed and politicians and activists from both sides have been among the more than 250 people detained since the coup, though more seem to have been allied to the ousted government of Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.
The dispute between the Bangkok-based establishment, of which the military is a part, and Thaksin's political machine, which includes provincial power-brokers and is supported by the rural poor, has polarised the country and divided families.
The junta has said it wants national cohesion and to "lead Thailand back on the path of democracy", and says its reconciliation centres will be a part of that effort.
"The model is Prayuth's and it is intended to build peace because even within the same family politics can't be discussed," said Colonel Banpot Poonpien, a spokesman for the military's Internal Security Operation Command (ISOC). "We must work on how to teach people to live together harmoniously," Banpot told reporters.
The ISOC is a military national security agency that took on leftists in the 1970s and now has sweeping powers and broad security responsibilities.
Banpot said Prayuth had given the ISOC the responsibility of setting up reconciliation centres in all of Thailand's regions.
While details of where and how they would operate had yet to be finalised, Banpot said the objective was to "bring people with differing views" together and that political activists would be asked to attend. "There will be no quota according to political affiliation for those invited to attend," he said.
'HIGH-MINDED AND IDEALISTIC'
Such assurances are unlikely to change perceptions that the military is being tougher with Thaksin's "red shirt" loyalists, staunch opponents of the coup, than with pro-establishment activists, many of whom welcomed the government's ouster.
After sweeping censorship and bans on gatherings, some Thais are questioning whether the army is taking one autocratic step too far. "Now the generals want to force Thais to get along. It's high-minded and idealistic of them but will it work?" one analyst said.
The analyst, who declined to be identified, said there was little hope that army reconciliation efforts could end the resentment of Thaksin's loyalists at what they see as undemocratic treatment. "They have gone to ground but no way is the movement finished ... They are just going through the motions of conforming with army orders but in a few months things could be very different."
The concept of a reconciliation effort is not new. The army sent units into the countryside to mend relations after a bloody military crackdown in May 2010 on pro-Thaksin protesters in Bangkok in which more than 90 people were killed.
Soldiers spoke to village heads and handed out leaflets but Thaksin's support remained solid.
It looks as if they will have their work cut out again if Sudarat Promkaew, 55, is anyone to go by.
A red shirt activist in the northern town of Fang, Sudarat said soldiers raided her home as the coup was unfolding in Bangkok. She was released on Tuesday after signing a pledge not to organise protests. "Everything is on hold. We're assessing the situation," she said.
When things do start happening, the army would know, she said. "It will be like a volcanic eruption. The people will come out ... The more quiet things are, the more dangerous the situation."