BANGKOK – Thailand’s powerful military has declared its support for elections set for February in a blow to the country’s protest movement that has crippled the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
But top military commander Thanasak Patimaprakorn insists the armed forces will not take sides in the crisis, saying it is the duty of the armed services to help all Thais.
“It’s not what my job’s all about … cracking down on riots and things like that,” General Thanasak said amid speculation that two powerful retired generals are backing the protest movement that claims to have set up a parallel government in Bangkok.
“To have peace and prosperity, we must solve these problems properly, sustainably and not let the same old cycle return,” he said.
Military chiefs agreed to meet protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who is wanted on treason charges, late on Saturday to discuss the crisis at a forum that was also attended by state agencies, academics and business people but no government representatives.
Mr Suthep urged the military to intervene to end the month-long crisis that has left five people dead and scores injured in street clashes.
“If you take a decision and choose sides, this matter will be over. If you decide quickly, the people will praise you and you will be a hero,” Mr Suthep told General Thanasak.
General Thanasak asked Mr Suthep how the crisis could be solved in a fair and just manner.
Mr Suthep replied: “The easiest way out is to have the Prime Minister step down … I believe that the army in the past would bring in tanks and stage a coup but you’re a new generation now and you wouldn’t do that, but we want the army to be a hero by siding with the people.”
Later Mr Suthep vowed in a speech to his supporters to stop people taking part in an election before he establishes a so-called “people’s assembly” to run the country during a reform period.
“The February 2 election will not happen,” he said.
The military’s role is seen as pivotal in ending an eight-year cycle of destructive conflict that pits Bangkok’s middle-class and elite and opposition strongholds in southern provinces against a mass of rural voters in the north and north-east who support the populist policies of Ms Yingluck and her exiled brother and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The armed forces have staged 18 coups or attempted coups since the 1930s, the latest in 2006 to overthrow Mr Thaksin, who had won five consecutive elections.
During street clashes the army has urged police to use restraint against protesters who occupied key government buildings for days and fought running street battles with police using tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets.
Reuters has reported that two powerful generals with palace connections and a history of deep rivalry with Mr Thaksin are behind Mr Suthep and have an ability to influence the still highly political armed forces.
The news agency cites three sources as saying former defence minister General Prawit Wongsuwan and former army chief General Anupong Paochinda are leading forces behind Mr Suthep, a veteran politician with strong military ties who ordered a military crackdown in 2010 when he was deputy prime minister in the previous Democrat-led government.
Generals Prawit and Anupong have close ties to army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha and all three have a history of enmity with Mr Thaksin, who is living in exile in Dubai but is accused by critics of running his sister’s administration from abroad.
General Anupong was a leader of the coup that ousted Mr Thaksin in 2006 and General Prawit was defence minister in the government that was defeated by Ms Yingluck’s party at elections in 2011.
Wassana Nanuam, a senior journalist who covers military affairs for the Bangkok Post and who is well connected in the military, has speculated about a “discreet coup” that could be behind Mr Suthep.
“As the power struggle unfolds, some observers note Mr Suthep may not have managed to come this far waging his brand of political warfare without support from the military,” she wrote in the Post.
Nicholas Farrelly, an expert on the Thai military at the Australian National University’s school of international, political and strategic studies and College of Asia and the Pacific, said there is no doubt a full-scale military coup would have serious consequences and would provoke a popular backlash with the potential for underground mobilisations not seen in Thailand since the 1970s.
“The path back to a democratic system would likely be tortuous and could prove impossible for a wounded nation,” he said.
Dr Farrelly said the military can exert its influence in other ways and help to exercise its role as designated guardian of the palace.
“A quiet effort to exert its dominance over events and over Prime Minister Yingluck is probably sufficient,” he said.
“Yet everything remains unpredictable and I’d be the last person to suggest a coup is completely off the cards.”