Thai crisis deepens as army chief hints at intervention
By Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat, Reuters, Dec. 27, 2013
BANGKOK (Reuters)—Thailand’s powerful army chief refused on Friday to rule out military intervention to defuse an escalating political crisis, the latest blow for a government determined a February election will go ahead despite deadly clashes with protesters.
General Prayuth Chan-ocha said “the door was neither open nor closed” when asked whether a coup would happen, a marked shift from the strong denials the armed forces routinely make.
"Anything can happen," Prayuth told a news conference in Bangkok. "It depends on the situation … we are trying to do the right thing, in a peaceful way and we urge negotiations."
The general’s comments represent a major setback at a critical time for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who is under attack from opponents determined to overthrow her and weaken the influence of her self-exiled brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
She has called an election for February 2, which her Puea Thai Party is almost certain to win, but anti-government protesters have vowed to stop the poll. The Election Commission (EC) also asked for a postponement after violent clashes on Thursday.
The political deadlock and violence have become all too familiar in Thailand, where the military have staged or attempted to stage 18 coups in 81 years of democracy.
Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy is divided broadly between those who love Thaksin, such as the rural poor in the populous north and northeast, and those who loathe him, a group that includes Bangkok’s conservative elite and middle class.
Rumors of a coup have swirled in recent weeks. Three sources with ties to the military have told Reuters recently that two of Prayuth’s still-influential predecessors had expressed their support for the anti-government protest movement.
The protesters want the suspension of what they say is a fragile democracy subverted by Thaksin to enhance the business empires of his family and friends, using cheap healthcare, micro-loans and state subsidies to buy off the poor.
They draw strength from the south, as well as Bangkok’s establishment of old-money families, the royalist bureaucracy and generals who despise Thaksin’s rise.
The crisis is starting to drag on the economy. The Thai baht plumbed close to four-year lows this week and Thai stocks fell two percent after Thursday’s violence.
The Finance Ministry cut its growth forecast for 2013 on Thursday, due in part to the political unrest, and 2014 forecasts are also in jeopardy.