Thai protesters outline reform aims, military neutral for now

BANGKOK: Leaders of the protest movement trying to overthrow Thailand’s government outlined their aims at an armed forces seminar on Saturday but military leaders declined to take sides or say if a February election should take place.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra called a snap election on Monday, when 160,000 people besieged her office. She remains caretaker prime minister but the protesters want her to go now, with political reforms pushed through before any election.

The army has staged or attempted 18 coups in the past 80 years – including one against Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, when he was premier in 2006 – and it can make or break any attempt to force her out.

It has declined to get involved in the present crisis and Thanasak Patimaprakorn, supreme commander of the armed forces, maintained that neutrality when he opened the forum, which was open to the public.

“We live under rules and reason. For sure, we protect the lives and assets of people. It’s not what my job’s all about, cracking down on riots and things like that,” he said.

“To have peace and prosperity, we must solve these problems properly, sustainably, and not let the same old cycle return.”

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban told Thanasak that the military had intervened in similar situations in the past.

“If you take a decision and choose sides, this matter will be over. If you decide quickly, the people will praise you and you will be a hero,” he said.

Thanasak evaded the issue of taking sides, again saying the duty of the armed services was to help all Thais.

At an earlier forum at Thammasat University in Bangkok, Suthep said Yingluck’s government had no legitimacy. “Today, Thailand has no government and no parliament. Today, there is already a political vacuum.”

He wants to use that perceived vacuum to set up a “people’s council” and eradicate the influence of the “Thaksin regime”.

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

A note circulated late on Friday 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.