Neu­tral po­si­tion

Armed forces host fo­rum to hear con­cerns ahead of planned bal­lot

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By AGEN­CIES in Bangkok

Thai mil­i­tary lead­ers pub­licly de­cline to take sides af­ter op­po­si­tion pro­test­ers out­line re­form plan.

Lead­ers of a protest move­ment try­ing to over­throw Thai­land’s gov­ern­ment out­lined their aims at an armed forces sem­i­nar, but mil­i­tary lead­ers de­clined pub­licly to take sides or say if an elec­tion should take place in Fe­bru­ary.

Thai­land’s mil­i­tary has taken center stage in the coun­try’s on­go­ing po­lit­i­cal drama, show­ing off its gen­tler side by host­ing the fo­rum over the weekend to al­low the protest leader to present his de­mand for an im­me­di­ate change of gov­ern­ment.

The mil­i­tary did not in­di­cate whether it would act on the pro­test­ers’ be­half dur­ing the fo­rum on Satur­day.

Protest leader Suthep Thaug­suban re­peated his po­si­tion that care­taker Prime Min­is­ter Yingluck Shi­nawa­tra must step down, and an in­terim, non-elected gov­ern­ment should ad­min­is­ter the coun­try be­fore any new polls are held. An elec­tion has been called for Fe­bru­ary.

The gov­ern­ment hosted its own sep­a­rate fo­rum on Sun­day billed as a brain­storm­ing ses­sion “to get a roadmap for the way for­ward” with se­nior of­fi­cials, politi­cians, law­mak­ers, academics and oth­ers.

In a sign of the con­tin­ued di­vi­sions in the coun­try, Suthep and his “Peo­ple’s Demo­cratic Re­form Com­mit­tee” said they would snub the event, as did the main op­po­si­tion Demo­crat Party, which has backed the protests.

Supreme Com­man­der Gen­eral Thanasak Pa­timaprakorn, a se­nior but mostly fig­ure­head of­fi­cer, was the of­fi­cial host of Satur­day’s fo­rum, dis­tanc­ing the pro­ceed­ings from the real power bro­ker — army com­man­der Gen­eral Prayuth Chan-ocha, who de­clined to com­ment.

Suthep stuck to his de­mands and urged the mil­i­tary to back him, say­ing he was not call­ing for a coup, but that “if you make a de­ci­sion soon, the peo­ple will see you as a hero of the peo­ple, and we can solve the prob­lem”.

Thanasak said the sides must reach a “so­lu­tion that fixes ev­ery­thing for the long term, and does not re­turn things to the same cy­cle”.

The mil­i­tary’s in­ter­ven­tions in re­cent decades have been messy. In 1992, the army shot dead dozens of demon­stra­tors protest­ing a mil­i­tary-backed gov­ern­ment in the streets of Bangkok, the cap­i­tal, and in 2010 re­peated the blood­shed in quash­ing another up­ris­ing.

The army’s 2006 coup against then prime min­is­ter Thaksin Shi­nawa­tra — Yingluck’s brother — was a blood­less one, but was fol­lowed by the in­stal­la­tion of an in­ept in­terim gov­ern­ment. The coup also po­lar­ized the coun­try, which has seen Thaksin’s sup­port­ers and op­po­nents con­tend­ing for power ever since, some­times vi­o­lently.

Suthep and his group want new laws to ban­ish cor­rup­tion in pol­i­tics to be im­ple­mented ahead of any elec­tion. The pro­test­ers say Thai pol­i­tics are hope­lessly cor­rupt un­der the al­leged con­tin­u­ing in­flu­ence of Thaksin, who has lived in self-im­posed ex­ile since 2008 to avoid jail time on a cor­rup­tion charge.

Yingluck has dis­solved Par­lia­ment to call elec­tions for Feb 2.

More sig­nif­i­cant than what Suthep said on Satur­day was the role the armed forces played in host­ing the event.

The mil­i­tary, ap­par­ently seek­ing to cast it­self in a new light, has re­peat­edly de­clared it­self neu­tral in the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal bat­tle, though it’s no se­cret that it dis­likes Thaksin.

De­spite be­ing wanted by po­lice on an in­sur­rec­tion charge, Suthep sat on­stage dur­ing Satur­day’s fo­rum, which was at­tended by the lead­ers of the var­i­ous mil­i­tary branches. The com­man­der of the na­tional po­lice force, whose lead­er­ship and ranks are gen­er­ally pro- gov­ern­ment, was in­vited but did not at­tend.

MAN­ISH SWARUP / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

An anti-gov­ern­ment pro­tester sits in a camp along the bound­ary wall of Gov­ern­ment House, which houses Thai Prime Min­is­ter Yingluck Shi­nawa­tra’s of­fice, in Bangkok on Sun­day.

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