Thailand martial law: Thai army has applied the clutch, but positions essentially unchanged

Thai anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban (centre) speaks to his followers next to core leaders during a rally at Democracy Monument in Bangkok, Thailand on Thursday, May 22, 2014. -- PHOTO: EPA
Thai anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban (centre) speaks to his followers next to core leaders during a rally at Democracy Monument in Bangkok, Thailand on Thursday, May 22, 2014. -- PHOTO: EPA

Thailand is still waiting for a breakthrough as parties to the country's political conflict enter a second round of talks under the umbrella of martial law unilaterally declared by the army, nationwide, just before dawn on Tuesday.

The deadlock boils down to this: The anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) does not want an election, because the ruling Puea Thai Party is likely to win it. The PDRC says the election process itself is corrupted and manipulated, and wants reforms to fix this, before another election is allowed.

The real agenda: to drive the Puea Thai government, now in a caretaker capacity, out of office or at least prove that the caretaker government has failed and is "headless" in order to pave the way for the Senate to recommend that a new, non-elected prime minister be proposed to the King. This is an opportunity to "eradicate" the political network of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who the royalist PDRC sees as a threat to the monarchy.

Overshadowing the fight, is the future role of the monarchy under a new king. With King Bhumibol Adulyadej a frail 86, succession looms and Thais are worried about a country in which the unrivaled moral authority of the person in the throne, is no more.

The government counters all the legal arguments by saying it is not headless and is very much in office under the constitution, because it is mandated to remain in office until an election produces a new parliament.

Army chief general Prayuth Chan-ocha, acknowledges that the government is in office legally under the constitution.

The government further says, that in order to have reforms, you must amend the constitution. The constitution can only be amended by a sitting parliament. To get a sitting parliament, you must have an election.

"We don't want to stay in power," explained caretaker deputy prime minister Pongthep Thepkanchana in an exclusive interview at the Ministry of foreign affairs on Wednesday.

"We want to go. And the sooner we have an election, the sooner we will go.

"Our position is firm - an election, because there is no other solution. As a government, we can't have any other position."

"The way forward is an election. What a lot of people are talking about is reform; this can't be accomplished without amending the constitution - and that can't be done without a house of representatives."

The "red shirts" - a movement born out of the 2006 coup d'etat that threw Thaksin out of power, progressively consolidated and helping to sweep his sister Yingluck Shinawatra to power in elections in 2011 - back the government and want an election. They say installing a non-elected prime minister is a red line which the establishment elites backing the PDRC should not cross.

The Election Commission has been reluctant to schedule an election, citing the fraught atmosphere. The last attempt, on Feb 2, was sabotaged by the PDRC.

Checkmate, no compromise, an ever-tightening spiral of tension, fears even of civil war - and then on Tuesday, gunpoint.

Talks between the warring parties and other key players like the Election Commission, followed on Wednesday and are set to continue on Thursday.

The talks are behind closed doors at the Royal Thai Army Club, guarded by armed soldiers. It is the first time that the warring parties have been in the same room together.

"We needed a big bang to get everyone into the same room," says appointed Senator Anusart Suwannamongkol.

"That big bang is martial law."

Backstage at the PDRC's rally at Rajadamnoen Road, at a sprawling fortified site right outside the UN building, on Wednesday night spokesman Akanath Promphan who was part of the movement's delegation at the talks, laughed slightly.

"It is a bit funny, that was the first time all the different parties got together in one room and it went pretty much peacefully, it was quite calm."

But the PDRC would continue to push for an appointed prime minister, he said.

Asked about the constitutionality of the process, he acknowledged: "Under the circumstances, there is no alternative that would follow (the constitution) 100 per cent. (But) we can stay within the constitutional framework."

The movement has announced that it will call a massive demonstration over the weekend and on Monday, May 26, there will be a "big announcement" when "everybody comes together, the people, state enterprise workers, the civil servants; we all announce we have regained sovereign power."

"On the 27th, two things: If we don't succeed it's the end of it. If we do, we have an interim government in place."

"If the Senate doesn't do their job... the people will appoint their own prime minister," he said. But "for any outcome, it will be the end of a chapter. We can't keep demonstrating forever. But we will leave a legacy."

It is not the first time that the prospect of Thailand having two prime ministers, one official and one unofficial, working in parallel, has been envisaged.

And there is scepticism over the pledge; the PDRC has declared "final battles" before. Most analysts see the prospect of the movement packing its bags and going home, as remote - unless there is a deal reached at the Army Club.

In one new proposal though, pro-government "red shirt" leader Jatuporn Promphan suggested a national referendum on reforms at the first day's meeting.

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