Thailand martial law: Crisis meeting inconclusive, more talks on Thursday

Thai soldiers stand guard near where pro-government are rallying on the outskirts of Bangkok on May 21, 2014. A crisis meeting between leaders of rival Thai political groups aimed at resolving long-running conflict ended inconclusively on Wednes
Thai soldiers stand guard near where pro-government are rallying on the outskirts of Bangkok on May 21, 2014. A crisis meeting between leaders of rival Thai political groups aimed at resolving long-running conflict ended inconclusively on Wednesday, May 21, 2014, and the army has called for another meeting on Thursday, May 22, 2014, a participant said. -- PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailand's military hosted ground-breaking talks on Wednesday between warring political rivals but there was no breakthrough in the talks and another meeting was called for on Thursday afternoon.

The opposing camps and other top officials met for more than two hours under heavy guard in Bangkok in what one hardline supporter of the elected government called a "good" atmosphere.

The talks were chaired by army chief General Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who invoked martial law on Tuesday to prevent the deeply divided kingdom from degenerating into another "Ukraine or Egypt".

"Everybody agreed to consider other groups' suggestions to find a joint solution for our country," said army spokesman Sirichan Ngathong, adding that 40 people attended the talk. "It's the first time that they talked to each other in person," she added.

The army chief brought the two sides together as US-led pressure grew for civilian control to be restored amid concern that the move by the military, which has intervened repeatedly in politics down the decades, posed a grave threat to democracy in South-east Asia's largest economy.

The meeting included top officials of the ruling and opposition parties and of the election commission and Senate, as well as the heads of the pro- and anti-government protest camps.

"The atmosphere at the meeting was good. At least we had a chance to talk to each other," Ms Thida Thavornseth, a core leader of the "Red Shirt" movement that supports the beleaguered current government, told AFP.

But she added: "I don't know whether we can come up with anything concrete tomorrow."

The meeting tomorrow was scheduled for 2pm local time (0700 GMT).

Caretaker Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, who replaced Ms Yingluck Shinawatra after a controversial court ruling ousted her this month, did not attend but was represented by five cabinet ministers, a government official told AFP.

Mr Niwattumrong has called for fresh elections on August 3.

But the opposition wants vaguely defined reforms first to tackle graft and has vowed to stay on the streets until it has eradicated the influence of the "regime" it says is led from abroad by Ms Yingluck's self-exiled elder brother Thaksin Shinawatra, also a former prime minister.

General Prayut, 60, has said he invoked martial law to prevent political tensions spiralling out of control following months of deadly anti-government protests, and insists he intends to broker a solution, but critics have branded his actions a de facto coup.

"I will not allow Thailand to be like Ukraine or Egypt," he said on Tuesday, according to remarks released by the military.

Thailand has been wracked by nearly seven months of streets protests that have left 28 people dead and hundreds wounded.

In a new sign of its weakening hold on power, the caretaker cabinet has been barred by the army from accessing the emergency headquarters the cabinet had been using at a defence ministry office in the capital.

"The government is now using a safe house," said the government official who spoke to AFP.

Bangkok was calm on Wednesday, with unfazed Thais going about their business and the city's bustling street life carrying on amid a noticeably lighter military presence compared to the day before, when armed troops were deployed.

But martial law gives the military wide power to ban public gatherings, restrict people's movements, conduct searches, impose curfews and detain suspects for up to seven days.

Late on Tuesday, four more satellite television stations were ordered to suspend broadcasts, bringing to 14 the number shut down.

Social media and other websites were instructed not to distribute "provocative" material or criticism of martial law, and the military issued guidelines restricting who media outlets can interview.

Thailand's longtime ally the United States said it did not believe the army had staged a coup - avoiding sanctions required under US law - but urged respect for democracy.

"The army has stated publicly that it would be a temporary action. We expect them to abide by their commitment," said State Department spokesman Jen Psaki, adding that Washington was encouraging the Thai military to protect "civil liberties and freedom of speech and freedom of media".

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon issued a statement, urging "full respect for democratic principles", while the European Union called for "a clear timetable" for a snap election.

The military left in place the caretaker government in office since the dismissal of Ms Yingluck, whose brother Thaksin was himself ousted in a 2006 coup.

Anti-government protesters claim he still controls the government from exile.

Parties led by Thaksin or his allies have won every election over the past dozen years, to the dismay of an entrenched Bangkok-based elite who accuse him of corruption and posing a threat to the monarchy.

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