Thailand has been wracked by two months of political tensions and occasionally violent street protests pitting the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra against protesters seeking to oust her. The army has staged 11 successful coups in the country’s history, so its intentions are being watched carefully.
“That door is neither open nor closed,” the army chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, said in response to questions from reporters as to whether a military intervention was likely. “It will be determined by the situation.”
Prayuth also reiterated a request that people stop asking the army to take sides in the dispute.
“Please don’t bring the army into the center of this conflict,” he said.
The protesters have been eager for the army to intervene in the crisis. Late last month, they forced their way onto the grounds of army headquarters to deliver a letter asking the military to support their campaign to topple Yingluck. The protesters stopped short of calling for a coup, but urged military leaders to “take a stand” in the political crisis. Prayuth responded by insisting that the army would not take sides.
On Thursday, the protesters, who are seeking to disrupt elections scheduled for February 2, battled with police in clashes that left two people dead and injured more than 140. Thirty of the injured remained hospitalized Friday.
As Thursday’s violence unfolded, Thailand’s election commission called for a delay in the polls, a blow to Yingluck, who expects to win them handily thanks to her overwhelming support in the country’s north and northeast. The government rejected the call.
Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said Friday that he would ask the military to provide security for the elections.
Prayuth said the army had shown “red traffic lights to both sides, so things will calm down,” and called for an end to street violence. “You ask, ‘Who wins?’ Who wins?’ No one,” he said.
Police have made no move to arrest the protest movement’s ringleader, Suthep Thaugsuban, who is demanding the country be led by an unelected council until reforms can be implemented. He’s vowed that the protesters will thwart the polls through civil disobedience. Authorities have to tread carefully, as a crackdown would likely provoke greater violence and chaos.
The current tensions date back to 2006, when Yingluck’s brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was toppled in a military coup. The protesters accuse Yingluck of being a proxy for Thaksin, who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid jail time for a corruption conviction but still wields influence in the country.
Thaksin or his allies have won every election since 2001. His supporters say he is disliked by Bangkok’s elite because he has shifted power away from the traditional ruling class, which is represented in the current protest movement.