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Thai army chief assumes role as mediator in political crisis

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Published : 2014-05-21 20:30
Updated : 2014-05-21 20:30

BANGKOK (AP) ― Thailand’s army chief assumed the role of mediator Wednesday by summoning the country’s key political rivals for face-to-face talks one day after imposing martial law. Residents, meanwhile, tried to make sense of the dramatic turn after six months of turmoil.

Around Bangkok there was little sign of any change, and most soldiers that had occupied key intersections in the capital a day earlier had withdrawn. People went about their work normally, students went to school, and the traffic was snarled as it would be any other weekday in this bustling city.

Martial law for now appeared to be playing out primarily behind closed doors, as army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha “invited” the key powerbrokers in the country’s latest political crisis to meet for the first time since it escalated six months ago.

The army interrupted regular programming on national television to announce the Wednesday afternoon meeting at Bangkok’s Army Club, which it said was being called “to solve the political conflict smoothly.”

Seven of the country’s highest profile political figures were summoned. They included the acting prime minister, anti-government protest leader Suthep Thausuban and his rival from the pro-government Red Shirt group, Jatuporn Prompan. Also summoned 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.

The meeting of bitter political enemies was unlikely to yield any immediate resolution, but the event itself was a stunning development.

Prayuth invoked the military’s expanded powers Tuesday and issued more than a dozen edicts that included broad powers of censorship over the media, the Internet and vaguely defined threats to prosecute opponents.

The military insisted it was not seizing power, but said it was acting to prevent violence and restore stability in the deeply divided country. Prayuth told a news conference Tuesday that without martial law imposed, the political opponents would never come together to broker peace.

“That’s why martial law was needed, or else who would listen?” said Prayuth. “If I call them in, they have to come.”

Prayuth has provided little clarity on a path forward, amid speculation both at home and abroad that the declaration of martial law was a prelude to a military coup.

Known to be gruff with the media, the army chief deflected questions about the likelihood of a coup with flippant answers that added to the confusion. Asked if a coup was taking shape, he replied: “That’s a question that no one is going to answer.”

Asked if the army was keeping in contact with the government, he answered: “Where is the government right now? Where are they now? I don’t know.”

The army banned demonstrators from marching outside their existing protest sites and banned any broadcast or publication that could “incite unrest.” Fourteen politically affiliated satellite and cable TV stations ― on both sides of the political divide ― were asked to stop broadcasting.

But for most people, there was no tangible change in their everyday life.

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