May 10, 2014, 7:16 AM ET
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Thailand’s army chief said the country’s six-month political deadlock must be solved through legal means as supporters and opponents of the government held competing rallies in Bangkok, raising the risk of fresh clashes.
“A military coup will not end the conflict,” Army Chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha said today in Bangkok. “A coup will attract a lot of criticism. The conflict must be resolved through a legal framework.”
Thailand’s crisis has its roots in the removal of Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister in a 2006 coup, with opponents aiming to end his family’s influence over politics. Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was ousted as premier May 7 for abuse of power, leaving acting leader Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan to hold on to power until an election tentatively planned for July 20.
“The Cabinet, led by the acting prime minister, will continue its duty under the law until there is a new government from elections,” Niwattumrong told reporters today. “If the nation can walk on the path of democracy, problems will be solved peacefully.”
Yingluck, 46, endured more than six months of protests by opponents who accuse her family of crony capitalism and using populist policies to secure the support of rural voters. She was forced to step down May 7 after the Constitutional Court found her guilty of abuse of power, and an anti-graft agency a day later ruled she was derelict in her role overseeing a rice-subsidy program, a charge that could lead to a five-year ban from politics.
Anti-government protesters rallied outside television stations for a second day today to pressure broadcasters to carry statements by leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former opposition politician who wants a “people’s council” to implement unspecified reforms before elections are held. Suthep faces charges of sedition and treason linked to the latest protest, and murder charges stemming from his time as deputy prime minister in 2010, when he oversaw a military crackdown on Thaksin supporters in Bangkok that killed more than 90 people.
With the army reluctant to intervene to break the impasse, Suthep repeated a call today for the nation’s Senate and top courts to appoint a prime minister.
“As there is no House of Representatives, the Senate is the only legislative body in the parliament,” he said in a televised speech. “As we already have a new Senate speaker, we would like him to consult with the president of the Supreme Court, Administrative Court, Constitutional Court and Election Commission to find a way to appoint a new prime minister”
The political deadlock has caused consumer confidence to slump to an almost 13-year low and credit ratings companies have warned that prolonged unrest threatens to damage an already fragile economy.
The stalemate remains the biggest risk to the economy, which expanded 2.9 percent last year, central bank Governor Prasarn Trairatvorakul said May 8. The University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce said this week the economy may contract in the first half, after releasing data that showed consumer confidence slipped for a 13th straight month in April.
Thailand’s benchmark SET Index (SET) of stocks and the baht fell to their lowest levels in more than a month yesterday. The SET dropped 0.1 percent to 1,377.37 and the baht touched 32.631 per dollar, the weakest level since Feb. 11.
Thailand’s Senate must proceed with caution, Speaker Surachai Liengboonlertchai told reporters today.
“There are a number of people who won’t accept the nomination of a new prime minister,” Surachai said. “The conflict in the country is very high. We have to be careful in proposing anything that will not be acceptable to one side.”
Senators will have “informal discussions” next week before holding more talks with politicians and senior officials, Surachai said. “I can’t say whether political reforms will come first or an election will be held first,” he said, adding that anti-government forces need to “flexible” with a deadline for resolving the crisis “because the solution will take time.”
The government has had limited powers since December, when Yingluck dissolved parliament. A February poll was invalidated by a court on the grounds the vote didn’t take place across the country on the same day, something that wasn’t possible because protesters blocked voting in some areas.
The government and the Election Commission have agreed to a new poll on July 20, though a decree has yet to be submitted for royal approval. The Democrat Party has threatened to boycott that vote, as it did in February. Thaksin-allied parties have won the past five ballots, while the Democrats haven’t won a poll in more than two decades. Commissioners will meet government officials on May 14 to discuss the July vote.
This week’s verdict was the third by the Constitutional Court against backers of Thaksin. In 2008, the court found his allies guilty of vote buying, disbanding their party and banning another 30 executives, including then-Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law. That ruling came just weeks after the court ordered Thaksin ally Samak Sundaravej to step down as prime minister for hosting a cooking show.
Standard & Poor’s said this week that the court decision will reinforce the belief among Yingluck’s supporters that “the judiciary is biased toward the establishment — made up of the urban elite, the military and royalists.”
The rally by the pro-government Red Shirts starting today will be peaceful, to avoid giving the army a justification to stage a coup, the group’s leader said.
“If they obstruct the election, so be it. No election,” Red Shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan said May 8. “If they topple the government and there is a political vacuum, so be it, no government,” he said. “Let’s stay like this and see who can hold on longer.”
The army won’t take sides in the conflict, and has a duty to “look after all people,” chief Prayuth said.
“The army has to be firm,” he said. “We can’t follow the demands of any one group. We have to be patient. The public should trust that the army will be the last resort for the nation and the people.”
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at email@example.com Tony Jordan, Greg Ahlstrand