Thailand’s all-powerful army chief started the extraordinary meeting by asking participants to give a progress report on their “homework.”
The participants were the country’s most important political rivals, plus four Cabinet ministers from the embattled government, election commissioners and senators. The homework: solving a crisis so complex it has split the Southeast Asian nation for nearly a decade, fueling repeated spasms of bloodshed and upheaval.
They didn’t know it then, but they only had about two hours to figure it all out. Just after 4:30 p.m. Thursday, the conference room would be sealed by soldiers, and the man who called the meeting, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, would become Thailand’s new ruler.
Accounts of those pivotal moments at a military complex in Bangkok known as the Army Club, relayed by two lawmakers who were present and Thai media, indicate that Prayuth had no intention of engaging in the kind of protracted negotiation necessary to mediate a conflict that reignited last year when protesters took to the streets.
The sequence of events raises questions about whether the meeting was a ruse to neutralize anyone who might oppose the coup. The fact it happened so swiftly suggests that Prayuth was already planning to do what demonstrators had pushed for all along: overthrow the government, if the two sides could not reach a compromise.
There was never much hope they would.
The intractable divide plaguing Thailand today is part of an increasingly precarious power struggle between an elite, army-backed conservative minority based in Bangkok and the south that can no longer win elections, and the political machine of exiled ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his supporters in the rural north who backed him because of populist policies such as virtually free health care.
The army deposed Thaksin in a 2006 coup. And on Friday, it detained his sister, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Yingluck was forced from office earlier this month by a controversial court verdict for abuse of power, which she denies.
Deputy army spokesman Col. Weerachon Sukondhapatipak said Saturday the junta would likely hold her for one week so she can “calm down and have time to think.”
When Prayuth declared martial law on Tuesday, the 60-year-old officer insisted he was only trying to restore stability and force all sides to talk. The next day, he summoned rival factions and Cabinet officials who had little choice but to show up.
After that initial two-hour meeting, everyone was told to come back with proposals to end the crisis, said a lawmaker who attended and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Could rival protest groups call off their demonstrations? Could an interim government be agreed upon? Should political reform (demanded by protesters) or new elections (demanded by the government) come first? Could the country hold a referendum on its fate?