Thailand’s military leader Prayuth Chan-Ocha said it may take at least a year to return the country to civilian rule because the junta that seized power May 22 needs time to implement electoral reforms and unify the country.
“It will not happen if there are still protests without a true understanding of democracy,” Prayuth said in an official transcript of a nationally televised speech delivered in Thai late yesterday. “All we are asking for is give us time to reform in order to mend our democratic system.”
Prayuth said the specter of fresh violence forced the army to seize power last week, and reiterated warnings to opposition groups that political protests won’t be tolerated. He said it may take two to three months for so-called “reconciliation” efforts by the military’s National Council for Peace and Order to “return happiness to the people.”
The army has said it had no choice except to seize power in Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy to end more than six months of political turmoil that led to an annulled election in February and the ouster of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra by the courts three months later. Protests have sprung up in Bangkok and the northern city of Chiang-Mai in defiance of martial law that was imposed two days before the coup.
“We cannot keep fighting each other just because we think differently, or use the law to our own advantage,” Prayuth said. “This will only create more conflicts. People will be unhappy and the country will be unstable and loose its credibility among the international community. All sides must cooperate and unite.”
Prayuth repeated a “road map” to restore order and bolster the economy, including accelerating budget spending on subsidy payments to farmers and infrastructure. The economy contracted 0.6 percent in the first quarter as demonstrations hurt production and tourism. A midnight to 4 a.m. curfew will remain in place, Prayuth said. The restriction will be eased soon in popular tourist areas and eventually be lifted, he said.
Prayuth’s plan to restore unity broadly reflects the demands of an anti-government group led by opposition politician Suthep Thaugsuban, which held six months of street protests to encourage a coup and replace Yingluck’s government with an unelected council. Supporters of the ousted government have accused the army, the courts and state agencies including the Election Commission of colluding with Suthep to provide the army with a justification to seize power.
Suthep’s protesters, who pressured Yingluck into holding a snap poll, disrupted the vote and blockaded government offices and key areas of Bangkok. They have called for laws to be rewritten to erase the influence of the Shinawatra family from politics. Yingluck’s brother Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup and parties linked to him have won the past five elections.
Thaksin’s opponents say his electoral dominance is based on economically damaging populist policies and accuse him of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for the monarchy. Thaksin lives in self-imposed exile abroad to avoid a jail sentence in a corruption case he says was politically motivated.
The U.S. scrapped joint military programs with Thailand in the days after the coup, and the European Union and human rights groups have called on the junta to release people detained since the putsch, including protesters, academics and journalists, and remove restrictions on the media.
“We will also respond when nations retreat from democracy, as in Thailand,” U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said today in a speech in Singapore. “We urge the Royal Thai Armed Forces to release those who have been detained, end restrictions on free expression, and move immediately to restore power to the people of Thailand, through free and fair elections.”
Australia’s government today expressed “grave concerns” about the actions of Thailand’s military, and said it will prevent coup leaders from visiting, in a foreign affairs department statement. It also postponed three joint activities with the Thai military planned in the coming weeks.
Most of those detained, including leaders of the Red Shirts that supported Yingluck’s government, were released late last week. The junta has said people will be detained for a maximum of seven days.
“These people were requested to report to officials in order to separate them and allow them to have a ‘cooling-off’ period,” Prayuth said. “They will have the opportunity to rethink their actions and listen to others.”