BANGKOK • Thailand's military-led reconciliation talks, aimed at mending the country's political divide ahead of elections next year, will start next week and last three months, said the junta.
The junta billed the talks, announced on Thursday, as proof that it is serious about a return to democracy. On Wednesday, it said the elections it promised for this year would be postponed until 2018.
Thailand's junta overthrew the country's last elected prime minister in 2014, saying it intervened to end street protests and years of political turmoil.
It promised to restore democracy to the South-east Asian country, and set up a reconciliation panel of generals and experts to improve relations between political factions.
"We aim to start reconciliation talks on Feb 14, the day of love," said Lieutenant-General Kongcheep Tantravanich, a defence ministry spokesman. "We want the reconciliation to happen before, during, and after elections."
Thailand's political divide is mainly between the traditionalist elite, centred in middle-class Bangkok, and the less prosperous parts of the country, which largely backed the populist governments of former premiers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck. Both were overthrown in coups in 2006 and 2014, respectively.
The Democrat Party, one of two main parties, believes reconciliation can be achieved. "I only ask that we don't sweep problems under the carpet but talk about real problems," said the party's legal adviser, Mr Wirat Kanyasiri.
But Ms Yingluck's Pheu Thai party has doubts. "The reconciliation panel should consist of people who are neutral," said Mr Chaturon Chaisang, one of the party's leaders.
Mr Thanawut Wichaidit, a spokesman for the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, which supports Thaksin and Ms Yingluck, said the army should position itself neutrally from now on.
Critics have asked how neutral the panel could be, given the army's involvement in politics for decades.
Political analyst Kan Yuenyong said reconciliation led by the military had a higher chance of success compared with reconciliation led by political parties.
"If reconciliation is to be achieved, it has to be led by the military," said Mr Kan, executive director of think-tank Siam Intelligence Unit.
"But there could be less resistance if the panel was more neutral."