Revealed: the pivotal last hours that led Thai general to declare, 'Sorry, I'm taking power'

At last meeting with political factions, general moved swiftly to seize power when it became clear government wouldn't agree to step down

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 May, 2014, 5:25am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 May, 2014, 6:54am

Thailand's all-powerful army chief started the extraordinary meeting by asking participants to give a progress report on their "homework".

The participants were the country's most important political rivals, plus four cabinet ministers from the embattled government, election commissioners and senators. The homework: solving a crisis that was so complex that it has split the nation for nearly a decade.

They didn't know it then, but they only had about two hours to figure it all out. Just after 4.30pm on Thursday, the conference room would be sealed by soldiers, and the man who called the meeting, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, would become Thailand's new ruler.

Accounts of those pivotal moments at a military complex in Bangkok known as the Army Club, relayed by two lawmakers who were present and Thai media, indicate Prayuth had no intention of engaging in protracted negotiation.

The sequence of events raises questions about whether the meeting was a ruse to neutralise anyone who might oppose the coup. The fact it happened so swiftly suggests that Prayuth was already planning to do what demonstrators had pushed for all along: overthrow the government, if the two sides could not reach a compromise.

There was never much hope they would.

When Prayuth, 60, declared martial law on Tuesday, he insisted he was only trying to force all sides to talk. The next day, he summoned the rival factions.

After that initial two-hour meeting, everyone was told to come back with proposals to end the crisis, said a lawmaker who attended the talks.

Participants were ordered to leave their mobile phones outside, more soldiers were on guard and they were heavily armed. Prayuth opened the meeting, saying his aim was to bring peace.

"What I'm doing today is in the interest of security," he said, in a video released by the military's TV station.

An hour later, there was, predictably, no agreement, the lawmaker said. The talks kept returning to a single point: how would the government go?

Former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said the cabinet could sacrifice for the nation and resign. Somebody else suggested that the civilian administration might just "take leave". Others said ministers could step down one by one or en masse.

The government officials said "they couldn't do it, claiming they were brought to power by the people and therefore could not step down", said Sirichoke Sopha, a former member of parliament from the opposition Democrat Party who was present at the talks.

Anti-government protester leader Suthep Thaugsuban then held a private meeting with Jatuporn Prompan, leader of the "red shirts", supporters of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They spoke for 45 minutes. Afterwards, both leaders whispered with Prayuth in a corner for a brief minute.

When the meeting resumed, Prayuth asked Justice Minister Chaikasem Nitisiri if the government still refused to step down. "We will not," Chaikasem replied, according to the lawmaker.

Prayuth then told a representative from the Election Commission not to bother planning a vote. He told Senate representatives not to invoke a constitutional clause that they had been pressing for to appoint an interim prime minister.

And then, Prayuth stood up. "Sorry, I'm taking power" from this moment on, he said calmly, according to Sirichoke.


Tourists feel no threat, but fret about curb on partying

Foreign tourists navigating Bangkok's temples lamented the taming effect of a military coup on the city's rowdy nightlife but otherwise shrugged off any safety fears despite warnings by foreign governments.

As a junta closed its grip on power over the kingdom and soldiers kept watch in the capital, its historic heart was still busy with foreign holiday-makers.

Many were largely unperturbed by Thursday's military overthrow of the civilian government.

"We saw the bars closing - it was weird to see everything closing because it never closes," Israeli student Maayan Sher, 22, said of the military-imposed 10pm to 5am curfew.

Strolling near the city's Grand Palace with two friends on Friday she said: "I didn't feel in any way threatened. We do understand that we are not the target."

But her friends admitted they were considering cutting short their stay in the city.

"It's not because we are scared but because everything is closing and we want to party," said Taluri Dvash, 26.

International flights are still in operation, with those travelling to and from airports among the few exempt from the night curfew.

Tourist arrivals in the first four months of 2014 were down nearly 5 per cent on a year earlier at 8.6 million. As a result, Thailand's economy shrank 0.6 per cent year-on-year in January to March. The 1.3 million arrivals from China from January to April marked an 18 per cent drop, while Hong Kong visitor numbers fell 42 per cent.

Agence France-Presse