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Thai coup leader's call for end to protests likely to face test

Source: Reuters - Sat, 31 May 2014 02:39 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Protesters plan weekend demonstrations

* General Prayuth says elections at least a year away

* Appeals for patience from international community

By Robert Birsel

BANGKOK, May 31 (Reuters) - An appeal by Thai coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha for demonstrations against his May 22 takeover to end as part of a plan to restore democracy is likely to be tested this weekend with protesters expected on the streets.

Prayuth ousted the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra after months of sometimes violent protests against it and late on Friday he set out a plan for reconciliation and reform, which he said would take about a year.

After that, he said, elections would be held.

"When our tasks are finished, we will go back to our normal duties as soldiers. We will watch over the country from there," Prayuth said in a televised address.

But he said the plan could only be implemented if there was peace and stability.

"All that I have outlined will not succeed if all sides do not cease demonstrating politically," he said.

Thailand has become polarised between supporters of Yingluck and her influential brother, deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra, and the royalist establishment that sees Thaksin and his populist ways as a threat to the old order.

Thaksin's popularity among poorer voters, especially in the populous, rural northeast and north, has ensured that he or his allies have won every election since 2001.

Prayuth justified his takeover and the tough measures he introduced afterwards, which have included the detention of about 250 people, censorship of the media and a ban on gatherings. Most of those detained have been freed.

"We cannot keep fighting each other just because we think differently," said Prayuth. "Every side must find a way to cooperate."

SOCIAL MEDIA

Despite martial law and a ban on gatherings, small protests against the military takeover have been held almost daily in Bangkok. There has been no serious violence.

For a second day on Friday, soldiers mounted a big operation at the central Victory Monument, sealing it off and preventing anyone from gathering. Sometimes rowdy crowds had faced off with soldiers and police at the Bangkok landmark earlier in the week.

Activists, spreading word through social media, say they will hold a big show of opposition on the weekend, to press for the restoration of democracy.

"There will be big demonstrations and events all over the country on Saturday and Sunday," said one protester at the monument late on Thursday.

The stumbling economy is a priority for the military and Prayuth promised that the 2015 budget would be in order and public spending would be transparent.

Gross domestic product shrank 2.1 percent in the first quarter of 2014 as the anti-government protests damaged confidence and scared off tourists.

The stern general set out the path to elections in his address. He outlined a three-phase process beginning with reconciliation which would take up to three months. A temporary constitution would be drawn up and an interim prime minister and cabinet chosen in a second phase, he said.

"This process will take approximately a year, depending on the situation," he said, sitting at a table with flowers in front of him and portraits of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit on a wall behind him. "The third phase will be democratic elections."

The political crisis and coup have come at a time of anxiety over the issue of royal succession. The king, the world's longest reigning monarch, is 86 and spent four years in hospital from 2009. The monarchy is Thailand's most important institution.

Foreign governments have condemned the coup and called for a rapid return to democracy. The U.S. has suspended $3.5 million in military aid and warned of the negative impact the military action will have on the relationship between the two countries.

Prayuth made a direct appeal for patience from Thailand's "international friends" in his address.

"We understand that we are living in a democratic world. All we are asking for is give us time to reform," he said. "We believe that you will choose our kingdom before a flawed democratic system." (Additional reporting by Paul Mooney and Viparat Jantraprap; Editing by Simon Webb and Jeremy Laurence)

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