Army chief as­sumes role as me­di­a­tor in po­lit­i­cal cri­sis

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY RICHARD S. EHRLICH

BANGKOK | Be­fore mar­tial law was im­posed Tues­day, there was one sure way for res­i­dents and tourists to avoid vi­o­lence amid Thai­land’s po­lit­i­cal melt­down: Don’t touch the traf­fic cones.

Demon­stra­tors have used the or­ange-and-white plas­tic cones to halt traf­fic in Bangkok for six months in their protest against the govern­ment. Em­bold­ened by a sense of im­mu­nity from ar­rest, pro­test­ers had be­gun beat­ing or shoot­ing any­one who dared move their cones. Sev­eral dozen people have been in­jured in such clashes with pro­test­ers.

For many, the cones had come to sym­bol­ize not only the vi­o­lence of the month­s­long protest but also the govern­ment’s in­abil­ity to deal with the po­lit­i­cal stand­off.

To­day, though the traf­fic cones are still in use, the thugs who have guarded them are not to be seen — re­placed by uni­formed soldiers car­ry­ing as­sault ri­fles un­der or­ders from the Royal Thai Army’s chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha.

On Wed­nes­day, Gen. Prayuth con­vened a face-to-face meet­ing of the coun­try’s key po­lit­i­cal ri­vals in an at­tempt to re­solve the stale­mate. The meet­ing ended with­out res­o­lu­tion, and is ex­pected to re­sume Thurs­day.

The meet­ing “was con­ducted in a very friendly at­mos­phere,” said army spokesman Veer­a­chon Sukhon­ta­p­ati­pak. “Ev­ery­one seemed to un­der­stand that right now we have to work to­gether.”

Act­ing Prime Min­is­ter Ni­wat­tum­rong Boon­song­paisan sent four rep­re­sen­ta­tives to the meet­ing, which in­cluded the leader of the anti-govern­ment protests, for­mer law­maker Suthep Thaug­suban, and the leader of pro-govern­ment “Red Shirt” group, Jatu­porn Prompan.

In an­nounc­ing mar­tial law Tues­day, Gen. Prayuth had said he was con­duct­ing a coup, and he ap­peared more in­ter­ested Wed­nes­day in main­tain­ing or­der and seek­ing a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion to the coun­try’s cri­sis than in seiz­ing power.

Many soldiers were with­drawn from street pa­trols Wed­nes­day, as an un­easy nor­mal­ity set­tled on Bangkok, the po­lit­i­cal and commercial cap­i­tal of Thai­land, and the rest of the ma­jor­ity Bud­dhist coun­try.

Now the traf­fic cones stand as a grim re­minder of re­cent vi­o­lence. A Direc­torate of Joint In­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial, Col. Wit­tawat Wat­tanakul, was shot in Bangkok’s wealthy Chaeng Wat­tana neigh­bor­hood on April 25 af­ter get­ting out of his car to re­move a cone.

Luang Pu Buddha Is­sara — a much-feared, politi­cized Bud­dhist monk — has com­manded the anti-govern­ment thugs who guarded the cones, and led mobs and block­ades in the area to stop key govern­ment of­fices in Chaeng Wat­tana from func­tion­ing.

The saf­fron-robed monk also has pub­licly de­manded and re­ceived huge amounts of money from tar­geted businesses that he threat­ened to block­ade be­cause they dis­pleased him.

To re­pair his no­to­ri­ous im­age, Mr. Luang Pu has of­fered to sur­ren­der his guards to po­lice for in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and has of­fered Col. Wit­tawat $1,600 in com­pen­sa­tion, which was re­jected.

“I ad­mit that some­times the guards’ ac­tions af­fect other people, but we have al­ways apol­o­gized and of­fered com­pen­sa­tion for the dam­ages,” Mr. Luang Pu told the Daily News.

“If those per­sons want to sue us, we also ac­cept that,” said the monk, who sup­ports Mr. Suthep’s anti-govern­ment protests but is seen as a dan­ger­ous fu­ture ri­val be­cause he also ma­nip­u­lates Bud­dhist be­liefs.

“Buddha Is­sara de­fended the guards’ de­fense of traf­fic cones, claim­ing that the guards are tasked with es­tab­lish­ing safe perime­ters around the pro­test­ers to pre­vent po­ten­tial as­sailants from ap­proach­ing the demon­stra­tors and lob­bing grenades at them,” the Daily News said.

This ar­ti­cle is based in part on wire ser­vice re­ports.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

An armed Thai sol­dier is re­flected in a pud­dle as he guards a road near a pro-govern­ment demon­stra­tion site on the out­skirts of Bangkok. Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha sum­moned key po­lit­i­cal ri­vals for talks a day af­ter declar­ing mar­tial law.

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