Thailand’s army chief refused to rule out the possibility of a coup even after stressing that the military can’t take sides in the deadly dispute between protesters and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government.
The army is at “a difficult crossroad,” Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha said at a briefing in Bangkok yesterday. A man was shot dead early today and three other people were wounded at a protest site near the government offices in Bangkok. It came two days after two people were killed and 153 wounded in a riot sparked when police tried to stop protesters from disrupting preparations for a snap election. “We can’t go left and right. I have shown a red light to both sides,” Prayuth said.
The protesters have been calling for the military to add its muscle to the months-long bid to oust Yingluck’s government and set up an unelected council tasked with erasing what they say is her family’s corrupting political influence. Allies of her brother Thaksin Shinawatra have won the past five elections, including two since his ouster in a 2006 coup, enraging royalists who say he’s a threat to Thailand’s monarchy.
When asked yesterday whether the door remained open for the army to stage a coup, Prayuth said “I won’t say open or closed. Everything depends on the situation.” Thailand has experienced nine coups and more than 20 prime ministers since 1946.
Thailand’s baht fell to its lowest level since 2010 yesterday and the benchmark SET Index of stocks led losses in Southeast Asia on concern worsening political unrest will spur further capital outflows. The turmoil has claimed eight lives in the past two months.
The Election Commission urged the government to delay the Feb. 2 poll in the wake of the riot, which saw police fire tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters trying to force their way into a stadium where candidates were registering. The demonstrators say they can’t allow any election under the current system.
“Violence could intensify if the election is held as planned, which would cause unrest, chaos, riots and loss of life and bloodshed,” Election Commission Chairman Supachai Somcharoen said on Dec. 26. “If conflicts remain, an election cannot take place in a peaceful and orderly atmosphere.”
Yingluck dissolved parliament on Dec. 9 to ease tensions, triggering a poll whose date is set by royal decree. Delaying the vote would be unconstitutional and it must go forward, Deputy Prime Minister Pongthep Thepkanjana said late Thursday.
The protesters said a postponement was unacceptable because the election would still eventually take place and Yingluck would stay in power as caretaker prime minister.
“The government is now being pressured by the increasingly violent protesters on the one hand and now by the decision of the Election Commission,” Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher at New-York based Human Rights Watch in Bangkok, said by phone. “This sends a very bad and worrying message for the future of democracy in Thailand.”
The protesters are closely aligned with the main opposition Democrat party, which plans to boycott the poll. The party and protesters say Yingluck’s government is illegitimate and run from abroad by Thaksin, who faces a two-year jail term for corruption if he returns in a case he says is politically motivated.
Yingluck’s offers to negotiate with the protesters have been refused. She has ruled out resigning to make way for the unelected council, saying the roughly 16 million people who voted for her in 2011 should have a say in choosing the nation’s political future at the ballot box.
The Democrats have not won a national election since 1992 and may be pinning their future as a party on a street victory by protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former party powerbroker.
The Democrats have long enjoyed the support of the nation’s traditional elite, including royalist generals and those close to the palace. The party came to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote that followed the dissolution of a Thaksin-allied party by the Constitutional Court, which many academics have described as a judicial coup.
During its less than three years in power the Democrats twice called in the military to put down protests by Thaksin supporters calling for fresh elections. Suthep, at the time the deputy prime minister, oversaw the 2010 crackdown in which soldiers used live ammunition to end weeks of unrest that left more than 90 dead.