Thai Army Chief Urges Public to Ignore Rumors of a Coup

Thailand’s army chief urged the public not to believe rumors of a possible coup, saying the movement of military hardware into Bangkok was for an annual parade and not to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

“People are scared of something that hasn’t taken place yet,” Army Chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha told reporters in Bangkok yesterday. “Don’t be scared if you can’t see it. Everything must happen for a reason,” he said, before adding, “without a reason, nothing will happen.”

Tension has been building as anti-government protesters calling for Yingluck’s caretaker government to be replaced with an unelected council threaten to occupy parts of central Bangkok starting next week. The government also faces increased pressure after an anti-graft body said yesterday it found enough evidence to charge 308 lawmakers in a case that could lead to their removal from office.

The demonstrators, who are unsatisfied with new elections called for Feb. 2, plan to create traffic gridlock in key areas of the capital to increase pressure on Yingluck to resign and convince civil servants and soldiers to join their cause. The threat of a prolonged disruption to the city and the resumption of violence that has killed eight people has rattled financial markets, causing the benchmark SET Index to fall 2.9 percent this year and the baht to drop 0.8 percent against the dollar.

Bangkok Occupation

Protesters plan to move from the protest camp they set up two months ago at a traffic junction in Bangkok’s historic quarter and instead indefinitely block seven intersections in the center of the city starting Jan. 13.

“I want to ask for cooperation from all parties to take care of the nation, especially on Jan. 13,” Yingluck told reporters yesterday in Bangkok. “We want it to pass peacefully. We don’t want it to lead to clashes.”

Thailand’s National Anti-Corruption Commission found enough evidence to charge lawmakers for supporting a bill that would have changed the Senate into a fully elected body, Vicha Mahakun, a spokesman, said yesterday. There wasn’t enough evidence to charge Yingluck and 72 other lawmakers.

A court ruled on Nov. 20 that changing the Senate structure could be seen as seeking to overthrow the system of government with the king as the head of state. The cases could now be referred to the prosecutor-general who could bring criminal charges against the lawmakers.

The commission charged House speaker Somsak Kiatsuranont and Senate speaker Nikom Wairatpanij with abuse of power over the same case on Dec. 26.

Military Support

Thailand had a fully-elected Senate for nine years under its 1997 constitution, according to the Senate’s website. The 2007 charter, written by a military-appointed assembly after a coup the year before, called for just over half the members to be directly elected with the rest appointed by a commission.

The protesters have said the military should support their months-long bid to replace the government with an appointed council of “good people” tasked with erasing what they describe as the corrupting political influence of Yingluck’s family. Allies of Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, have won the past five elections, including two since his ouster in the 2006 military coup.

The protesters, who have vowed to disrupt the Feb. 2 polls, are led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former lawmaker and power broker with the opposition Democrat Party, which is boycotting the vote. They say the government is illegitimate and run by Thaksin, who faces a two-year jail term for corruption if he returns in a case he says is politically motivated.

Coup Rumors

Prayuth has refused to publicly take a side. When asked Dec. 27 whether the door remained open for a coup, he didn’t rule it out. “I won’t say open or closed,” he said. “Everything depends on the situation.” Thailand has suffered nine coups and more than 20 prime ministers since 1946.

Talk of a putsch increased when generals announced they would be moving troops and hardware, including artillery, into Bangkok this week for Army Day celebrations on Jan. 18. Prayuth stressed yesterday that the army has done this every year.

The movement of military assets into Bangkok, especially from a faction of the army that spearheaded the 2006 coup, was not without meaning, said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University and editor of the book “Knights of the Realm: Thailand’s Military and Police, Then and Now.”

“Prayuth Chan-Ocha is an ardent arch-royalist and anti-Thaksin,” he said. “I see this troop movement as a warning to police not to try to repress Suthep’s forces.”

While the military, royalists and many middle-class Thais are opposed to Thaksin, the police as a whole are loyal to the former premier, who was a police lieutenant colonel before entering politics, Chambers said.

Airport Seizure

In 2008, royalist protesters who accused Thaksin’s allies of trying to turn Thailand into a republic and who wanted to get rid of popular elections occupied Government House for several months before seizing Bangkok’s airports as the military declined to enforce an emergency decree.

The siege ended when the Thaksin-allied ruling party was dissolved in a court decision that many academics have described as a judicial coup. That allowed the Democrat Party, which hasn’t won a national poll in more than 20 years, to come to power in a parliamentary vote.

Suthep served as deputy premier in that government and faces murder charges for helping oversee a deadly crackdown in 2010 on Thaksin supporters agitating for new elections.

Yingluck also addressed the coup rumors, saying that past military interventions had failed to solve the nation’s divisions and all sides should find a peaceful solution.

“I believe all military heads will think about solving problems in the long term rather than using measures that are unacceptable to many countries,” Yingluck said.

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