May 16 (Bloomberg) -- Thailand’s army chief said the military may need to use force to counter any escalation of violence linked to the nation’s six-month political stalemate.
Yesterday’s statement from Prayuth Chan-Ocha came hours after acting Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan was forced to flee from anti-government protesters who stormed an air force compound where he was meeting with election officials, casting doubt on a poll tentatively planned for July 20.
The protest followed an overnight gun and grenade attack on the anti-government group’s camp in Bangkok that killed three people and wounded 22, bringing to 28 the number of people killed in political violence since November. The protesters are opposed to any vote under the current system and seek to install a temporary, unelected government of “good people.”
“We want to warn all parties that use war weapons against innocent people to stop now,” Prayuth said in a statement yesterday. “If the violence escalates, the military may need to come out in full force to keep the situation under control and protect lives.” He also asked those who want to invade or block military units to “stop thinking about that.”
Hundreds of demonstrators entered the air force compound in northern Bangkok where Niwattumrong was meeting with election commissioners yesterday. The talks were scrapped before an agreement to delay the vote was reached, Election Commission Secretary-General Puchong Nutrawong told reporters.
“The July 20 election is probably impossible now,” Commissioner Somchai Srisuttiyakorn said. “To make it happen, the new election law must be effective by May 22, which means we have only 7 days left and we haven’t reached a conclusion on the draft law yet.”
The government and its supporters are pushing for a fresh election after a Feb. 2 poll was blocked by the demonstrators and then annulled by a court. The protesters say no vote can be held until the country’s political rules are rewritten to remove the influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who sets government policy even after being ousted in a 2006 coup.
The caretaker government and the Election Commission had previously agreed on the July 20 poll date, though it was thrown into question last week when a court forced Thaksin’s sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, from office on an abuse of power charge.
“Given the current situation with such divisions in society, it’s not possible to an hold election,” protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban told the Election Commission in a separate meeting after disrupting the talks with the government. Suthep is a former official in the opposition Democrat Party, which boycotted the February poll and hasn’t won a national election in more than two decades.
Suthep has urged senators and the nation’s top courts to install an unelected leader, and yesterday reiterated a threat to mobilize supporters to achieve the goal himself if an interim premier isn’t named today. Suthep has made numerous threats in the past few months that he hasn’t acted on.
Senators are meeting again today to discuss ways to end the deadlock.
A group of 50 senators wants the Election Commission and the government to expedite arrangements for the election, and believes Suthep’s demands are unconstitutional, said Tri Danpaiboon, an elected senator who spoke on behalf of the group. Appointed senators make up almost half of Thailand’s 150-member upper house and the remainder are elected.
The government’s supporters in the so-called Red Shirt movement have vowed to fight any attempt to install an unelected government.
“The country’s solution must be for the people to decide,” Red Shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan said on his Facebook page yesterday. “All parties should overlook Suthep’s proposals and listen to the people.”
The protesters accuse the Shinawatras of corruption, crony capitalism and using populist policies to secure the support of rural voters. The government’s supporters accuse the protesters of seeking to subvert democracy because they know they will lose at the ballot box.
Acting leader Niwattumrong, who took over last week, has said that calls for an appointed government are illegal and could spur further violence. While political reform is a good thing, it must be undertaken by a new government voted into office by the people, he said May 12.
“We understand that all parties have their own beliefs, but we need to respect the law,” Winthai Suvaree, the army’s deputy spokesman, told reporters today. “Talking about issues or expressing views shouldn’t incite violence. People must think about the impact on the nation and the public.”
Any move to remove the caretaker administration my spark a violent backlash from the Red Shirts, said Omar Hamid, head of Asia Pacific country risk at IHS Inc.
“Their Red Shirt supporters will feel that they’ve been pushed against the wall and that they have no alternative but to turn to violence,” Hamid said today in a Bloomberg Television interview.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at email@example.com Tony Jordan