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Army takes control of Thai government, says chief

Reuters

Thailand's army has taken control of government two days after its general declared martial law on the protest-hit country.

Thai soldiers stand guard after army chief General Prayut Chan-ocha met with anti- and pro-government leaders on Thursday. (AFP)

Thailand’s army Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized control of the government on Thursday, saying the army had to restore order and push through reforms, two days after he declared martial law.

Prayuth made the announcement in a television broadcast after he held a meeting with all rival factions aimed at finding a solution to six months of anti-government protests. He said the takeover would not affect international relations.

Thai soldiers on Thursday took the leader of anti-government protests out of a meeting of all factions, witnesses said.

Hundreds of extra troops arrived at the venue from where Suthep Thaugsuban, who has been leading more than six months of anti-government protests, was taken away.

An army source said the army commander would soon make a statement.

Talks inconclusive
Thailand’s rival political factions would not agree to stop street protests on Wednesday during crisis talks aimed at ending the confrontation a day after the army declared martial law, a pro-government activist said.

Although the military denied Tuesday’s surprise intervention amounted to a coup, Chan-ocha appeared to be setting the agenda by forcing groups and organisations with a central role in the crisis to talk.

Issues raised during the meeting included reforming the political system – a demand made by anti-government protesters – and ending the demonstrations that have sparked violence, disrupted business and scared off tourists.

“When asked whether each group can stop protesting, there was no commitment from either side,” Thida Thawornseth, a leader of the pro-government “red shirt” political group, said. “There was no clear conclusion.”

Thailand has been riven for nearly 10 years by the rivalry between populist former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the royalist establishment.

Thaksin, a former telecommunications billionaire who won the loyalty of the rural and urban poor, has lived in self-exile since 2008 but still exerts a huge influence, most recently through a government run by his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.

Six months of protests
Yingluck was forced to step down as premier by a court two weeks ago, but her caretaker government was in power, despite the declaration of martial law and six months of sometimes violent protests aimed at ousting it.

The turmoil has driven the country to the brink of recession and even raised fears of civil war.

The anti-government protesters are opposed to an election, which Thaksin’s loyalist would be likely to win. They want a “neutral” prime minister installed to oversee electoral reforms aimed at ending Thaksin’s influence.

The government sees a general election as the best way forward and has proposed a new vote on August 3. The anti-government protesters disrupted an election in February that was later annulled, and they have vowed to do so again.

Whether all sides could accept an interim prime minister and what reforms could be implemented were also raised at the talks, Thida said.

Twenty-eight people have been killed and 700 injured since this latest chapter in the power struggle between Thaksin and the royalist elite flared up late last year.

Both pro- and anti-government protesters remain out in force, but the army has confined them to their separate protest sites, and there were no reports of trouble overnight.

Risks
General Prayuth said he had imposed martial law to restore order, and the caretaker government says it is still running the country.

“Certainly, it’s not an outright military coup by definition because the caretaker government is still in office, but on the ground it looks like the military is in charge,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak at the time, a political analyst at Chulalongkorn University.

He said Prayuth needed to convince everyone with a stake in the outcome of the need for “reforms before and after elections”.

“He’s taking a lot of risk, Prayuth, because the imposition of martial law puts him in a very tight spot ... The longer we do not see a resolution, the riskier it will become for the army,” Thitinan said.

The United States, which cut aid to its military ally after Thaksin was toppled in the most recent of Thailand’s frequent military coups in 2006, called on the army to respect “democratic principles”. –

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