Thailand martial law: Critical meetings today to resolve the crisis

An anti-government protester reads morning papers displayed inside the encampment in central Bangkok on May 21, 2014. The next phase in the Thailand's long-winding political crisis depends, at least partly, on a series of meetings that are to take pl
An anti-government protester reads morning papers displayed inside the encampment in central Bangkok on May 21, 2014. The next phase in the Thailand's long-winding political crisis depends, at least partly, on a series of meetings that are to take place on Wednesday. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - The next phase in the Thailand's long-winding political crisis depends, at least partly, on a series of meetings that are to take place on Wednesday.

 Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha who imposed martial law nationwide in the early hours of Tuesday, will shortly meet the Election Commission, the opposition Democrat Party, the ruling Puea Thai party, pro-government red shirt leader Jatuporn Promphan, and anti-government leader Suthep Thaugsuban for discussions.

The talks will mark the first time in months that the different parties to the conflict will meet.

The agenda is to find a way out of the crisis and on the table is an election.

The government wants an election on August 3 but has little real power left to force the issue.

The outcome is being keenly watched as Thailand remains in suspended animation, with some breathing space and a window for dialogue brought by the army's seizure of security powers. But the window is a slim one and the key issue still remains - whether and when to have an election.

An election is the only way out of the crisis, insists the government and its red-shirt support base. Many analysts agree.

The ruling party - which is a proxy for the popular yet divisive former premier Thaksin Shianwatra who is loathed by royalists as a threat to the monarchy - is likely to win the election again. To the anti-government forces, therefore, an election is to be avoided.

The meeting in the afternoon may be followed by another meeting between General Prayuth and acting caretaker prime minister Niwattthumrong Boonsongpaisal. It would be the first time they will meet since the army chief declared martial law.

There is wide criticism of General Prayuth at home and abroad for carrying out what many say amounts to a coup d'etat.

Playing his cards with nuance however, the General denies it, saying the government remains in office under the Constitution. The caretaker government and its red-shirt supporters are, for the moment, playing along.

Eyebrows have been raised, however, with a draconian decree imposing censorship on the media. The media clampdown cast a chill over a very short honeymoon on Tuesday when the appearance of soldiers on the streets came as some relief after a steady drumbeat of violence.

Twenty-eight people have been killed and some 700 injured since late last year when street protests began and gradually escalated into a deadlock that has left the government in disarray and the economy teetering on the edge of a recession.

The army has cracked down on the media already, closing down 14 satellite TV channels seen as partisa. It has also warned against inflammatory talk on social media.

In yet another meeting on Wednesday, General Prayuth will reportedly confer with Internet service providers to discuss how to restrict social media.

The anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) has welcomed the army's intervention, taking it as a signal of support for its own objective of driving out the government and creating a political vacuum to enable the unilateral appointment of a new prime minister. But this would be a red line certain to inflame the red-shirts.

Both the PDRC and red-shirts remain entrenched in their sprawling protest sites. The red-shirts at the western edge of Bangkok and the PDRC is holed up in the heart of the city. They have been ordered by the army to stay where they are and not move.

With the troops deployed at key locations across the city, there were no violent incidents reported overnight.

The PDRC, however, remains insistent on campaigning to oust the government entirely. It has said it will march again on Friday - wagers that the army will protect it.

The outcome of Wednesday's meetings could also determine whether the PDRC supremo pushes ahead with the march. 

nirmal@sph.com.sg