Mediation talks in Thailand fail to break deadlock

The country’s highest-profile political figures including the acting prime minister and anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, but talks ended without resolution.

BANGKOK // Thailand’s army chief assumed the role of mediator on Wednesday by summoning the country’s political rivals for face-to-face talks a 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.

In Bangkok, there was little sign of tension, and most soldiers that had occupied intersections in the capital a day earlier had withdrawn.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 the army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-Ocha “invited” the key power brokers in the political crisis to meet for the first time since it escalated six months ago.

The army interrupted regular programming on national television to announce the Wednesday afternoon 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 political figures were summoned. They included the acting prime minister – who sent four representatives in his place – and anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, as well as Mr Suthep’s rival from the pro-government Red Shirt group, Jatuporn Prompan.

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.

Officials said the bitter political enemies would resume talks again on Thursday afternoon.

Gen Prayuth invoked the military’s expanded powers on 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. Gen Prayuth said on 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?” he said. “If I call them in, they have to come.”

Gen Prayuth 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.

The army chief deflected questions about the likelihood of a coup with flippant answers that added to the confusion. Asked if a coup was taking shape, he replied: “That’s a question that no one is going to answer.”

Asked if the army was keeping in contact with the government, he answered: “Where is the government right now? Where are they now? I don’t know.”

The army banned demonstrators from marching outside their existing protest sites and banned any broadcast or publication that could “incite unrest”. Fourteen politically affiliated satellite and cable TV stations – on both sides of the political divide – were asked to stop broadcasting.

But for most people, there was no tangible change in their everyday life.

“After 24 hours of martial law, I have not spotted a single soldier,” said Buntham Lertpatraporn, 50, a doughnut vendor in the capital’s central business district along Silom Road. “I’ve only seen soldiers on TV.

“But in my mind I feel a little frightened, because I don’t know how it will end.”

* Associated Press writers

Published: May 21, 2014 04:00 AM

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