Turmoil in Thailand: Protesters to outline reform plans to military

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Leaders of the Thai protest movement trying to overthrow the government meet the heads of the politically influential armed forces on Saturday to try to persuade them to back their call for reforms and the suspension of the electoral system.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra called a snap election on Monday, when 160,000 people besieged her office at Government House. That failed to defuse the protests, although numbers on the street have dwindled since.

Ms Yingluck is caretaker prime minister until the election, which has been set for Feb 2.

"The government has no legitimacy to run the country. Today, Thailand has no government and no Parliament. Today, there is already a political vacuum," protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban told students, academics and others at a forum at Thammasat University in Bangkok on Saturday.

He wants to use that perceived vacuum to set up a "people's council" to push through reforms and eradicate the influence of Thaksin Shinawatra, Ms Yingluck's brother and a former prime minister who was ousted by the military in 2006.

The reform programme remains sketchy but its priorities are becoming clearer.

A note circulated late on Friday after protest leaders met the press said an interim government should focus on "laws relating to elections and political parties, to ensure that vote-buying and electoral fraud are prohibited".

It also promised "forceful laws to eradicate corruption", decentralisation, the end of "superficial populist policies that enable corruption" and the reform of "certain state agencies such as the police force" so they are more accountable to the public.

Thailand's eight-year political conflict centres on Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon popular among the rural poor because of policies pursued when he was in power and carried on by governments allied to him after he was toppled.

He gained an unassailable mandate that he used to advance the interests of big companies, including his own. Since 2008 he has chosen to live in exile after being sentenced in absentia to jail for abuse of power, a charge he calls politically motivated.

Ranged against him are a royalist establishment that feels threatened by his rise plus, in the past, the military. Some academics see him as a corrupt rights abuser, while the urban middle class resent what they see as their taxes being spent on wasteful populist policies that amount to vote-buying.

They see Ms Yingluck as the puppet of Thaksin, who has been known to address Cabinet meetings by Skype.

The army has staged or attempted 18 coups in the past 80 years. So far it has declined to get involved in the present crisis but it has offered to mediate.

Dr Boonyakiat Karavekphan, a political analyst at Ramkamhaeng University in Bangkok, did not expect much from Saturday's meeting with the military chiefs. "It is a public forum, which means that what will be discussed will be just a show," he said.

"The military is very aware that it can't take sides and can't act as it has done in the past because the international community is watching closely," he added.

Army spokesman Werachon Sukondhadhpatipak said this week the military was trying to encourage all sides to remain peaceful.

"We try to avoid getting ourselves involved directly or be seen as taking sides," he said.

Asked if the military supported the government, he replied: "At the moment, yes."

The government has accepted the need for reform and will kick off the process with a forum on Sunday, but it insists that change can only legally come after the election.

The prospects of that election taking place may become clearer at the start of next week when the opposition Democrat Party, Thailand's oldest, decides whether to take part.

Democrat lawmakers resigned from Parliament on Dec 8 and joined the street protests.

Mr Suthep, a deputy prime minister in the Democrat-led government until 2011, had resigned earlier to lead the movement, which gained impetus in early November after Ms Yingluck's government tried to push through a political amnesty Bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return home a free man.

As deputy premier, Mr Suthep authorised a military crackdown to end weeks of anti-government protests by Thaksin supporters in central Bangkok in 2010. Scores of protesters died.

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