Army chief assumes role as mediator in political crisis
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Many soldiers were withdrawn from street patrols Wednesday, as an uneasy normality settled on Bangkok, the political and commercial capital of Thailand, and the rest of the majority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.
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.