Thailand's coup-prone army not plotting to intervene in political crisis
Stand-off on streets over nation's leadership has prompted speculation of a military takeover
Thailand's army yesterday sought to ease fears it might step in to resolve a political crisis, while anti-government protesters fortified their positions around Bangkok as they seek to disrupt a February election.
The latest round of an all-too-familiar political conflict in Thailand has dragged on for weeks. It flared last week into deadly clashes between police and protesters outside a stadium where registration for the February 2 poll was under way and at other rally sites around the Thai capital.
The head of the military added to the growing sense of unease on Thursday when he refused to rule out a coup after those clashes. A policeman and a protester were killed when an unidentified gunman opened fire, and scores were wounded in the clashes.
The demonstrators are determined to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who they accuse of being a puppet of her self-exiled brother and former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thai army chief General Prayuth Chan-Ocha said after Thursday's clashes that, regarding a coup, "the door was neither open nor closed", and social media across Thailand has buzzed with rumours of a coup ever since.
Army spokesman Winthai Suwaree sought to play down those fears, telling assembled reporters yesterday that the rumours were causing "confusion and speculation".
"The army would like to insist there are no secret meetings or any operations by the military as speculated," Winthai said.
Until last week, the military had sought to keep above the conflict, the latest flare-up in years of rivalry between Bangkok's middle-class and royalist establishment and the mostly poor, rural supporters of Yingluck and Thaksin in the populous north and northeast.
The violence flared again in the early hours of Saturday when a protester was killed by an unidentified gunman who opened fire on a small group of tents set up by protesters outside Yingluck's offices at Government House. The rest of the capital remained relatively quiet.
Tension flared again on Sunday when a large firecracker was thrown at another protest site, at a bridge over a canal near Government House, wounding five demonstrators. That prompted the protesters to build sandbag walls across a street leading to their rally site at the bridge.
Most of the protests have centred on Bangkok, although demonstrators have also blocked registration for the polls in seven provinces in the south. The protesters, led by fiery former lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban, and the main opposition Democrat Party have many supporters in the south.
The Democrats said they would boycott the election which Yingluck called, and would likely win, in a bid to end the stalemate. The pro-establishment Democrats have not won a poll since 1992.
Suthep and his followers want an appointed "people's council" to take over and begin a reform programme before another election is held.
Yingluck is looking increasingly isolated. More chaos on the streets could invite intervention by the military, while the judiciary could also step in if the deadlock persists. Thailand's army has staged or attempted 18 coups in 81 years of democracy, including the removal of former telecoms tycoon Thaksin in 2006.