Thai army chief does not rule out military coup for the first time

THAILAND'S powerful army chief on Friday for the first time did not rule out a coup d'etat, as he warned warring political groups he was showing them a "red light".

General Prayuth Chan-ocha was speaking briefly to reporters a day after bloody clashes between police and anti-government protesters left well over 100 injured and two dead.

The protesters were trying to derail snap polls scheduled for Feb 2 that were called after Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, now the caretaker premier, dissolved parliament earlier this month following weeks of agitation for her government to be replaced by an appointed "people's council".

The general did not address a report that earlier on Friday, the caretaker government had said it would ask the army to ensure security for the election. The Election Commission has recommended that the polls be postponed after the clashes.

But he urged both sides to show restraint, a message he has delivered before.

Asked by a reporter about the possibility of army intervention, he said: "That door is neither open nor closed."

Earlier, the general had maintained that the army would not step into the fray that has plunged Thailand into a political crisis and led to fears of a civil war.

The army has launched 18 coups or attempted coups since 1932 when Thailand became a democracy. The last one in 2006 removed Ms Yingluck's billionaire brother Thaksin from power.

General Prayuth, who last week warned of the possibility of civil war, said the army had shown "red lights to both sides so things will calm down".

"You ask, 'Who wins?' Who wins? No one," he told reporters.

Anti-government protesters calling themselves the People's Committee for Democratic Reforms (PDRC) want the "people's council" to institute vaguely defined reforms before another election is held.

The government - which the PDRC dismisses as a puppet of Thaksin - insists that the Constitution has no provision for such a "people's council" and that the snap polls must take place. The opposition Democrat Party, which is closely allied with the PDRC, has announced a boycott of the election. The PDRC has vowed to sabotage the election - which led to the clashes on Thursday as protesters tried to disrupt the election process of registration of candidates by the Election Commission.

nirmal@sph.com.sg