BANGKOK (AP) — The opponents in Thailand’s polarizing political crisis met Thursday for a second round of talks mediated by the country’s army chief, who says he invoked martial law and then summoned the bitter rivals to try to end six months of turmoil.
The closed-door talks at an army facility in Bangkok were taking place three days after Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha declared martial law, giving the army expansive powers and broadly censoring the media. Most Thais were watching the talks with a mix of skepticism and hope.
Many of the country’s highest-profile figures were summoned for the gathering of political enemies, which was unthinkable until now. They included the acting prime minister – who declined to attend Wednesday’s first round of talks but sent four representatives in his place – and anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, as well as Suthep’s rival from the pro-government Red Shirt group, Jatuporn Prompan.
Wednesday’s talks ended without a resolution, highlighting the challenges the army faces in trying to broker an end to the conflict.
In a televised announcement on Thursday, the army said the “meeting to solve the political conflict” would enter its second phase later in the day, and that the army chief “would like to invite” the political leaders to return.
The army warned, however, that supporters of the two protest groups “must not follow them, and stay put at protest sites.”
Prayuth has said that without the imposition of martial law, the political opponents, who had declined to meet in the past, would never have come together.
The military has insisted that it is not seizing power, but that it is acting to prevent violence and restore stability in the deeply divided country.
But in a country that has experienced 11 coups in modern history, the army’s action remains unclear.
The English-language Bangkok Post ran a commentary Thursday titled “Coup or No Coup, Task Ahead Is Huge.” The column questioned the military’s intentions and its stated goal of imposing martial law to bring about a democratic solution.
“Will the army chief be able to persuade politicians to bridge their differences and start talking, to place the national interest beyond that of their own? No one knows,” the column said. “At this stage, the people realize they have no choice but to place their trust in the army chief.”
Also summoned for the negotiations were leaders of the ruling Pheu Thai party and the opposition Democrat Party, as well as the five-member Election Commission and representatives from the Senate, which has anti-government members pushing a plan to replace the government with an appointed leader.
Suthep’s anti-government movement, which started in November, has blocked elections and vowed to overthrow the government. Thousands of his supporters were gathered in Bangkok’s historic district near the prime minister’s office compound, which has been vacant for months due to security concerns.
Thousands of the pro-government Red Shirt protesters are holding their own rally on the outskirts of Bangkok and say they will not tolerate the removal of the elected government.
One of the army’s explanations for declaring martial law was to avoid feared clashes between the two sides, and more violence in a crisis that has already left 28 people dead and hundreds injured, many by drive-by shootings and grenades hurled at protest sites.
Highlighting the threat of violence, the army announced Thursday that it had made five seizures of weapons this week in the provinces, including grenades, semi-automatic rifles and ammunition. The army said it had no immediate proof the weapons were related to political violence.
Thailand has been gripped by bouts of political turmoil since 2006, when the army toppled then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra after he was accused of corruption, abuse of power and other charges leveled by the country’s ruling elite.
His overthrow triggered a power struggle that in broad terms pits Thaksin’s supporters from the country’s rural majority against a conservative establishment in Bangkok that felt threatened by Thaksin’s popularity.
The latest round of unrest started in November, when demonstrators took to the streets to try to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister. She dissolved the lower house of Parliament in December in a bid to ease the crisis, and later led a weakened caretaker government until a court dismissed her for nepotism. The ruling was viewed by her supporters as politically motivated.