Thailand's military refuses to intervene

Thailand's supreme commander has dismissed an opposition rally leader's call to intervene in support of efforts by protesters to oust the government and replace it with an unelected "people's council".

Responding to calls by protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban to "stand by the people", General Thanasak Patimaprakorn on Saturday expressed concern over the security situation and urged warring politicians to find a swift solution to the country's deep political crisis.

The "best way to solve the problem is through negotiation", he said at an open, televised forum that he himself hosted. "We live under rules and reason."

The general said the military's duty was to protect the lives and assets of the Thai people, not to crack down on riots.

He added: "To have peace and prosperity, we must solve these problems properly, sustainably, and not let the same old cycle return."

But there is little sign of a solution emerging, and the mid-term election scheduled for Feb 2 is looming as a sticking point.

The military has launched 18 attempted and successful coups since Thailand became a democracy under a constitutional monarchy in 1932. But while it holds powerful cards, it is reluctant to use them.

The last coup in 2006 ousted Premier Yingluck Shinawatra's brother Thaksin Shinawatra. Anti-government protesters see the billionaire running a proxy government and seducing his vote bank with money and expensive populist policies. They also see his popularity as a threat to the monarchy itself. But the coup solidified Thaksin's "red shirt" support base further.

Suthep Thaugsuban, the leader of the self-styled People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), in a meeting with the military's top brass - who took great care not to appear to be taking sides - stuck to his guns, rejecting the election.

Suthep - a Democrat Party politician who left his seat in Parliament to lead the massive protests that have seen the ruling Puea Thai party back-pedal and call for the mid- term election - laid out what academics at Saturday's forum said was a persuasive case outlining how the sitting government had lost legitimacy.

But the way forward remains clouded. The PDRC rejects the Feb2 election, saying it wants a "people's council" appointed to run the country for a year to institute sweeping reforms, and only then have an election.

The weekend is seeing a flurry of forums where different views and demands are being aired. But they remain to a significant degree mutually exclusive.

"There is some progress every time you have direct talks," said political scientist Panitan Wattanayagorn, who once served as spokesman for Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the opposition Democrat Party, when he was prime minister.

But he admitted: "There is no clear step forward."

Pro-government red shirt leaders had been invited by the military to Saturday's forum at the Supreme Command. But according to military officers, Suthep objected and the red shirts ended up without representation. Suthep has also so far refused to attend a ruling party-organised public forum.

Essentially, the Puea Thai party is banking on the election as due democratic process under the Constitution, and also to return it to power - which it won comfortably two years ago.

Foreign Minister Surapong Towichakchaikul on Saturday said as many as 40 countries had formally expressed support for the planned general election - and castigated Suthep for his refusal to attend the Puea Thai-sponsored forum today as evidence that the PDRC did not want to listen to anyone.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is in the family's hometown, Chiang Mai, and reports say the party is beginning to gear up for an election.

Suthep, for his part, told the military that the Prime Minister and her government must resign, and if they did not, then there would be no election. If there was an election, the PDRC would call for a boycott, he said.

Political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak, who was at the military-hosted forum, told The Sunday Times: "If the election takes place, it's a problem for the PDRC. If it doesn't take place, it's a problem for the UDD" - the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, the red shirts' umbrella organisation.

"If it takes place without Democrat Party participation, it will be illegitimate. Besides, the Puea Thai will win, whether the Democrat Party contests or not. So we have a very murky environment. It is very volatile, and the election is a time bomb."

nirmal@sph.com.sg


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