Bangkok: As life under martial law goes on in the sprawling Thai capital of 10 million people, a testy army general with close ties to the royal palace is hosting meetings of rival political factions that could decide Thailand’s future.
The meetings come at a time of deep anxiety among Thais over the ailing 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who – unlike at other critical times in Thailand’s history – has not intervened in a sometimes violent political crisis that has dragged on for six months.
Draconian lese-majeste laws limit discussion of the inevitable royal succession following the king’s passing, which will be a deeply traumatising time for Thailand.
But just months before his retirement General Prayuth Chan-ocha, a confidant of palace insiders and powerful establishment figures in Bangkok, has taken responsibility for ending the unrest that has sent Thailand’s economy into freefall and scared away millions of tourists.
These establishment figures despise former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the key target of anti-government protesters but still popular among rural masses in the country’s north and north-east.
Analysts say General Prayuth has embarked on a high-stakes strategy to bring the leaders of polarised factions together in the same room, goading them to come up with a way out of the crisis. When the first meeting ended inconclusively after three hours, he gave them “homework” and told them to come back the next day.
One of General Prayuth’s first acts was to stop plans to arrest key anti-government leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who is wanted on treason charges.
“Stop, enough. In terms of prosecution, softly, softly, OK? Otherwise this business will never end,” he reportedly told the head of a police agency.
General Prayuth’s decision to use a 100-year-old law to give his troops sweeping powers without declaring a coup avoided international condemnation and possible sanctions from countries like the United States.
“What we have now has been described as ‘half a coup’ or ‘martial law lite’,” said Anthony Davis, a Thailand-based analyst at security consulting firm IHS Jane’s. “It basically puts the lid on further conflict over the short term but leaves him holding the political ball.”
Mr Davis said “this is not a place” that General Prayuth wants to be in.
“My sense is this was intended to pre-empt the likelihood of more and escalating violence in the coming days,” he said. “He’s always been a professional soldier. He’s now playing a political game that he’s not necessarily good at, in tough conditions.”
The issues that General Prayuth has put on the table are whether there should be elections before reform; if reform should precede elections; whether an interim prime minister can be appointed; if the street protests should end; and whether the Senate, which is anti-Thaksin, should be in charge of resolving the conflict.
One possible scenario is that General Prayuth brokers an agreement for fresh elections under martial law with all parties contesting, leading to a reform process and amendment of the constitution.
Another is that he allows the Senate to appoint a new interim prime minister and remove the current cabinet. This would enrage pro-government Red Shirts, who would probably go underground and mount a nation-wide insurgency.
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