Thai army chief assumes role as crisis mediator

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 21, 2014 at 7:52 am •  Published: May 21, 2014
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BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's army chief assumed the role of mediator Wednesday by summoning the country's key political rivals for face-to-face talks one day after imposing martial law. The meeting ended without any resolution, however, underscoring the profound challenge the army faces in trying to end the country's crisis.

Residents, meanwhile, tried to make sense of the dramatic turn of events after six months of protests aimed at ousting the government.

Around Bangkok there was little sign of tension, and most soldiers that had occupied key intersections in the capital a day earlier had withdrawn. Across the country, people went about their work normally. Students went to school, and the usual tourist droves crowded luxury resorts, relaxing on white sand beaches unfazed by the crisis.

Martial law for now appeared to be playing out primarily behind closed doors, as army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha "invited" the key powerbrokers in the political crisis to meet for the first time since it escalated six months ago. The army interrupted regular programming on national television Wednesday to announce the meeting at Bangkok's Army Club, which it said was being called "to solve the political conflict smoothly."

Many of the country's highest-profile figures were summoned for a summit of political enemies that was unthinkable until now. They included the acting prime minister — who sent four representatives in his place — and anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, as well as Suthep's rival from the pro-government Red Shirt group, Jatuporn Prompan.

The meeting ended with at least one agreement: To meet again Thursday.

"(It) was conducted in a very friendly atmosphere," said army deputy spokesman Veerachon Sukhontapatipak. "Everyone seemed to understand that right now we have to work together."

Another spokesman, Col. Winthai Suvaree, said Prayuth gave the participants "homework" and told them to consider five points on possible resolutions to the conflict, consult their supporters and report back Thursday with answers.

Also summoned were leaders of the ruling Pheu Thai party and the opposition Democrat Party, as well as the five-member Election Commission and representatives from the Senate.

Prayuth told a news conference Tuesday that without martial law imposed, the political opponents would never come together to broker peace.

"That's why martial law was needed, or else who would listen?" said Prayuth. "If I call them in, they have to come."

Prayuth invoked the military's expanded powers Tuesday and issued more than a dozen edicts that included broad powers of censorship over the media, the Internet and vaguely defined threats to prosecute opponents.

The military insisted it was not seizing power, but said it was acting to prevent violence and restore stability in the deeply divided country. But he has provided little clarity on a path forward, amid speculation both at home and abroad that the declaration of martial law was a prelude to a military coup.

In Washington, the top American diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel, called for the early restitution of democracy and free and fair elections.

Human Rights Watch criticized the Obama administration for failing to call for the immediate reversal of martial law. The group issued a statement that called the army's move and its broad restrictions "effectively a coup that threatens the human rights of all Thais."

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