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Coup-prone Thailand looks to army chief to break deadlock

Posted by Rattana_S On January - 11 - 2014 ADD COMMENTS

(Reuters) – Standing inside one of Bangkok’s many military bases is a giant poster of Thai army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha in full dress uniform, along with a list of attributes. “Intelligent,” reads the poster. “Knowledgeable. Modern. Visionary.”

As Bangkok braces for a “shut down” by anti-government protesters on Monday, and rumors multiply that yet another military coup is imminent, another adjective for General Prayuth springs to mind: opaque.

Paralyzing Bangkok is the latest bid in a two-month attempt by protesters to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose brother, Thaksin, was overthrown in the last military coup in 2006.

Yingluck called a snap election for February 2, but this failed to mollify protesters, who want her government to resign in favor of an unelected people’s council to oversee political reform.

Many Thais believe the military will soon step in again to break the political deadlock, especially if next week’s citywide protests turn violent.

But Prayuth, 59, has remained noncommittal, brushing aside rumors of a military coup while deftly side-stepping an outright denial.

It wasn’t always so. Famous for irascible exchanges with the media, Prayuth once suggested coups were obsolete and slammed rumor-mongers for damaging the country.

As Thailand’s latest round of protests gathered pace, however, his public statements have fuelled rather than scotched the rumors.

“I cannot confirm whether there will or will not be a coup,” he said on January 7.

Two weeks earlier, Prayuth likened the unrest between pro- and anti-government protesters to an intersection where he had the power to “turn the lights red” to stop traffic from left and right colliding.

“The odds of an all-out military coup remain lower for now but will increase as instability drags on,” said Christian Lewis, a Southeast Asia specialist at political risk consultants Eurasia Group. “Prayuth and the military will most likely intervene only if the police lose control of an eroding security situation.”

“NOT CONSTRUCTIVE”

Thousands of protesters have taken to Bangkok’s streets since November, accusing the Shinawatra family of corruption and nepotism.

The protests, which have drawn 200,000 people at their peak, have been mostly peaceful.

Four people, including two police officers, died of gunshot wounds and scores were injured after protesters clashed with police outside a stadium on December 26 while candidates registered for the election.

In broad terms, the current crisis pits the Thai elite, including military generals and royalists, and the educated middle-classes against supporters of twice-elected former prime minister Thaksin, who now lives in self-imposed exile to avoid jail for a graft conviction he says was politically motivated.

But with Yingluck clinging onto power and protesters refusing to back down, analysts say protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister, can only win with Prayuth’s backing.

That has sparked fears that protagonists might instigate an attack on protesters during next week’s rallies in hopes of provoking army intervention.

But senior officers told Reuters the military is reluctant to see a repeat of the September 2006 coup, which Prayuth helped execute as a deputy regional commander and plunged the country into years of turmoil.

“Prayuth is aware that dealing with the problem by staging a coup is not constructive and, after a while, the same problems will come back again,” said army spokesman Colonel Werachon Sukhondhadhpatipak.

Born in northeast Thailand, now a stronghold for Thaksin supporters, Prayuth has a reputation for “hard-headed decisiveness”, wrote Anthony Davis, a Thailand-based analyst at security consulting firm IHS-Jane’s, after Prayuth was appointed in October 2010.

“An officer of polished social skills, he has become a regular visitor to the palace, suggesting that in royal circles he is seen as a vital figure to ensure the future stability of both the nation and the monarchy,” said Davis.

Prayuth also established a cordial relationship with Yingluck after her election the following year. He has repeatedly said he wants the military to remain politically neutral.

Yet Prayuth, who is a few months shy of mandatory retirement, commands a highly politicized army. It has played a pivotal role in a country that has seen 18 successful or attempted coups in the past 81 years.

“Prayuth was involved in a coup once before and knows that after a coup come many obstacles,” said Boonyakiat Karavekphan, a political analyst at Ramkamhaeng University in Bangkok.

“He has shown no political ambitions but even if he did, staging a coup today is much more difficult than in 2006. Thailand is a different country and he risks upsetting the politically awakened masses,” he said, referring to Thaksin’s supporters who would be outraged if his sister’s government was overthrown.

“WATERMELON SOLDIERS”

Prayuth faces another dilemma from some rank-and-file soldiers in green uniforms dubbed “watermelons” – green on the outside with red, pro-Thaksin, sympathies on the inside.

Fissures within the army were evident during a bloody April and May 2010 crackdown on pro-Thaksin red shirts in Bangkok who were demanding fresh elections and the resignation of pro-establishment Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Some soldiers openly sympathized with red-shirted protesters, tipping off the group’s leaders ahead of a planned army operation, unnerving the top brass and sapping troop morale. Ensuing clashes between soldiers and anti-government protesters killed 91 people. More than 2,000 were wounded.

“Last time the objective was to protect the Abhisit government which many soldiers disliked. But this time any decision by the generals will be made carefully and to protect national interests and all sides,” said army spokesman Werachon.

“Of course, there are some ‘watermelon’ soldiers but they know that, as an army, we have to present a united front.”

Compounding the situation is the complex web of loyalties within the army establishment.

Prayuth belongs to a powerful clique that includes retired former defense minister General Prawit Wongsuwan and former army chief General Anupong Paochinda, who both despise Thaksin.

A December 13 Reuters report revealed both men secretly back protest leader Suthep and his ambitions to eradicate Thaksin’s influence from Thailand. Prayuth is pulled between his loyalty to Anupong and Prawit, and his desire to restore the army’s image after the 2010 clashes.

When Thailand was hit by its worst floods in decades in 2011 he went on a media blitz to promote the army by sending soldiers to help civilians.

(This version of the story corrects Prayuth’s 2006 rank to deputy regional commander in paragraph 18.)

(Editing by Andrew R.C. Marshall and Robert Birsel)

US Embassy describes anti-government protest as peaceful

Posted by Rattana_S On December - 23 - 2013 ADD COMMENTS

The US Embassy in Bangkok on Monday described the ongoing protests against Yingluck government as peaceful.

When asked to comment on the protesters’ demand for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign from the position, Spokesman Walter Braunohler said it was the Thai people to decide on the matter.

He also dismissed the reports that it is compiling a blacklist of anti-government leaders including Suthep Thaugsuban.

“In accordance with our policy on visa matters, we do not comment on individual cases or applications. However, we note that rumors regarding alleged blacklisting or travel restrictions associated with current Thai political leaders or activists are completely false,” he said.

There were widespread of rumours on the social networks including Facebook and Twitter that the embassy wished to put the 14 leaders of the rally on a blacklist for entering the US.

The rumours said it was because the rally leaders involved in the protests in front of the embassy a few days ago.

Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra announced a road map for national reform yesterday that would go hand in hand with the February 2 snap election, requiring all political parties to pledge to honour the reform process after the election.

However, critics from the opposition Democrat Party appeared unconvinced, calling it a ploy to try and discourage the large numbers of people expected to join anti-government protests in Bangkok today.

Under Yingluck’s plan, all parties would have to pledge that the new government holds power for only two years, to see through the national reform process. Its mandate would be the creation of the reform council to work side by side with the new government. The reform council would represent peoples from all walks of life – both at local and national level – along with those representing various professions.

The caretaker premier said the national reform council would have a working mandate of two years to coincide with the next administration. The council would have the duty of proposing long-term reforms for the Kingdom, particularly political reforms, “so future politics can truly speak for the people”, Yingluck said.

Yingluck said she was fully committed to a speedy reform process that would involve all parties and all Thais, so that everyone could be a part of a process, which restores peace and order to the country.

However, deputy leader of the Democrat Party, Jurin Laksanawisit, said he was not convinced and posted a message on his Facebook page yesterday, saying the caretaker government would have to take responsibility if something untoward happened as a result of not implementing reforms before the snap election. Jurin also called the move a selfish decision for the sake of self-preservation.

Democrat Party spokesperson, Chavanond Intarakomalyasut said the announcement was a ploy to reduce the number of protesters today, but it would have the opposite effect. He also criticised the caretaker premier’s proposal as vague, superficial and rushed.

Chief adviser to the Chart Thai Pattana Party, Banharn Silpa-archa, said he was optimistic about the snap election, adding that the party would be campaigning throughout the Kingdom. He hoped that a small party like Chart ThaiPattana would have the opportunity to form the next government. Banharn, who recently returned to politics from a five-year political ban, said he would be the number-one candidate on the party list for his party.

Banharn also said he had not recently met or spoken with Suthep Thaugsuban, secretary-general of the anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). Banharn said he was not sure if Suthep still considered him a friend. They might find it difficult to relate to one another under the current circumstances, he added.

In a related development, a group of academics and students from 15 southern education institutions issued a statement condemning the caretaker government for not yielding to reform before the election. They called on all people to put pressure on the government.

Suan Dusit poll, meanwhile, revealed 91.55 per cent of 1,240 Bangkokians surveyed, believe politicians are the cause division in society today. Eighty  per cent also said politicians lacked morals, ethics and were self-serving.

(Reuters) – Anti-government demonstrators in Thailand said they will step up their protests in an attempt to force Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office and push through electoral reforms before a general election is held.

The number of protesters camped on the street in the capital has dwindled to about 2,000 over the past week but their leader, former deputy premier Suthep Thaugsuban, called for marches in central Bangkok on Thursday and Friday, followed by a big rally on Sunday.

“We will chase Yingluck out this Sunday after she made it clear she will not step down as caretaker prime minister,” he said late on Tuesday.

Suthep massed 160,000 protesters around Yingluck’s office on December 9, when she called a snap election for February 2 to try to defuse the crisis. Yingluck remains caretaker prime minister.

Suthep has sought the backing of the influential military but has so far been rebuffed. Thailand’s military – a frequent actor in Thai politics – ousted Yingluck’s brother, the self-exiled Thaksin Shinawatra, when he was premier in 2006.

“We will walk until the number of people who come out to join us outnumber those who elected Yingluck. We will march until the military and civil servants finally join us,” Suthep told reporters.

This month, a court issued an arrest warrant for Suthep on the charge of insurrection but police have done nothing to apprehend him, despite his appearance at a seminar with the military and other public events.

On Wednesday, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), Thailand’s equivalent of the U.S. FBI, said it would ask banks to freeze the accounts of 18 rally leaders, including Suthep, to investigate what it called “suspicious activity” – a sign the authorities might be taking a tougher stance.

“We will investigate whether they are funding the protest or if any suspicious transactions have taken place,” DSI chief Tarit Pengdith told reporters.

Thailand’s eight-year political conflict centers on Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon popular among the rural poor because of cheap healthcare and other policies brought in while he was in power.

Yingluck won a landslide victory in 2011 and her Puea Thai Party is well placed to win again because of Thaksin’s strong support in the populous, rural north and northeast.

Ranged against him are a royalist establishment, that feels threatened by Thaksin’s rise, and, in the past at least, the army. Some academics see him as a corrupt rights abuser, while the middle class resent what they see as their taxes being spent on wasteful populist policies that amount to vote-buying.

Thaksin chose to live in exile after fleeing in 2008 just before being sentenced to jail for abuse of power in a trial that he says was politically motivated.

DEMOCRATS AT ODDS

Even if the election takes place on February 2, its legitimacy could be undermined if the main opposition Democrat Party does not take part.

At a two-day conference that ended on Tuesday, the party reappointed former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva as its leader. However, its members could not agree whether to run in the election or back the street protesters.

Democrat lawmakers resigned from parliament this month to march with Suthep, who was a deputy prime minister in Abhisit’s government until 2011.

Some agree with his call for reforms to be implemented before another election is held, but others believe their party, Thailand’s oldest, should respect the democratic process and run for office. A decision is expected on Saturday.

Suthep’s program remains vague and it is unclear how long it would take his proposed “people’s council” to implement any reforms.

He wants to wipe out vote-buying and electoral fraud and has also promised “forceful laws to eradicate corruption”, decentralization, the end of “superficial populist policies that enable corruption”, and the reform of “certain state agencies such as the police force”.

Suthep’s protest gained impetus in early November after Yingluck’s government tried to push through a political amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return home a free man.

(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Paul Tait and Robert Birsel)

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