An anti-government protester in Bangkok on Thursday. (AFP)
Thai soldiers on guard as army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha met rival protest leaders at the Army Club in Bangkok on Thursday. (AFP)
Bangkok, May 22 (Reuters): Thailand’s army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha seized control of the government in a coup today, two days after he declared martial law, saying the military had to restore order and push through reforms after six months of turmoil.
The military declared a 10 pm until 5am curfew, suspended the Constitution and told outgoing cabinet ministers to report to an army base in the north of the capital by the end of the day. Rival protest camps were ordered to disperse.
Thailand is locked in a protracted power struggle between supporters of ousted former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra and opponents backed by the royalist establishment that has polarised the country and battered its economy.
“In order for the situation to return to normal quickly and for society to love and be at peace again ... and to reform the political, economic and social structure, the military needs to take control of power,” Prayuth said in the televised address.
The general made his broadcast after a meeting to which he had summoned the rival factions in Thailand’s drawn-out political conflict, with the aim of finding a compromise to end six months of anti-government protests.
But no progress was made and Prayuth wound up the gathering by announcing he was seizing power, according to a participant.
The Thai armed forces have a long history of intervening in politics — there have been 18 previous successful or attempted coups since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, most recently when Thaksin was deposed in 2006.
Hundreds of soldiers surrounded the meeting at Bangkok’s Army Club shortly before the coup announcement and troops took away Suthep Thaugsuban, leader of the protests against the pro-Thaksin government.
Some of the other meeting participants were being held back in the venue afterwards, said a Reuters reporter waiting outside.
The army ordered rival protest camps to break up and soldiers fired into the air to disperse thousands of pro-government “red shirt” activists gathered in Bangkok’s western outskirts, a spokesman for the group said.
The military detained at least one leader of the activists, said the spokesman, Thanawut Wichaidit.
A Reuters witness later said the protesters were leaving peacefully. Earlier their leader, Jatuporn Prompan, said they would continue their rally despite the coup.
The army had declared martial law on Tuesday, saying the move was necessary to prevent violence.
Twenty-eight people have been killed and 700 injured since the anti-government protests erupted late last year.
“Martial law may have been to test the waters, the army gave the opposing camps a chance to negotiate a way out but I think the endgame was always the military taking over,” said Kan Yuanyong of the Siam Intelligence Unit think-tank.
“The possibility of conflict is now much higher,” he said. “Thaksin will fight back.”
In a first round of talks yesterday, Prayuth had called on the two sides to agree on a compromise that would have hinged around the appointment of an interim prime minister, political reforms and the timing of an election.
But neither side backed down from their entrenched positions yesterday and again today, participants said.
“As we cannot find a way to bring the country to peace and everyone won't back down I would like to announce that I will take power. Everyone must sit still,” Prayuth told the meeting, according to one participant. The army has also clamped down on the media, including partisan television channels, and warned people not to spread inflammatory material.