BANGKOK – 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, who 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 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?
When talks resumed Thursday, the atmosphere was much different.
Participants were ordered to leave their cellphones outside, more soldiers were on guard and they were heavily armed. Prayuth opened the meeting, saying his aim was to bring peace.
“What I’m doing today is in the interest of security,” he said, in a video released by the military’s TV station. “If this steps over anyone, then I have to apologize. I insist that I will honor every side, always.”
An hour later, there was, predictably, no agreement, the lawmaker said. The talks kept returning to a single point: how would the government go?
Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said the Cabinet could sacrifice for the nation and resign. Somebody else suggested that the civilian administration might just “take leave.” Others said ministers could step down one by one, or en masse.
The government officials said “they couldn’t do it, claiming they were brought to power by the people and therefore could not step down,” said Sirichoke Sopha, a former member of Parliament from the opposition Democrat Party who was present at the talks. “We pleaded for them to step back, asking them to sacrifice to save democracy, because we looked at the situation and it didn’t look good.”
The comments were filled with irony. The ruling party, which ascended to power in a landslide election in 2011 that was deemed fair, had insisted for months that Thailand’s fragile democracy was under attack from protesters, the courts, and finally the army that had rendered it powerless, step by step.
Anti-government protester leader Suthep Thaugsuban, whose movement claims the government used its electoral majority to subvert democratic institutions, then held a private meeting with rival pro-Thaksin leader Jatuporn Prompan. They spoke, accompanied by aides, for 45 minutes. Afterward, both leaders whispered with Prayuth in a corner for a brief minute.
When the meeting resumed, Prayuth asked Justice Minister Chaikasem Nitisiri if the government was still insisting it would not step down.
“We will not,” Chaikasem replied, according to the lawmaker.
Prayuth then told a representative from the Election Commission not to bother planning a vote anytime soon because it would be a “long time” before a ballot could take place. He told representatives of the Senate not to bother with trying to invoke a constitutional clause they had been pressing for to appoint an interim prime minister.
And then, Prayuth stood up and addressed the room.
“Sorry. I’m taking power” from this moment on, he said calmly, according to Sirichoke.
Another lawmaker who recounted the same narrative of Thursday’s meeting, and also spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was not immediately clear if Prayuth was joking.
But the commander started heading toward the door and turned back to say: “Stay here. . . . Don’t leave this room,” before walking out and climbing inside the back of a black Mercedes Benz.
Almost immediately, soldiers poured into the room and sealed off the exits. Outside, olive-green military trucks blocked the building’s entrance, trapping everyone inside. Troops with automatic weapons drawn fanned out and took positions, waving journalists away.
Suthep, Jatuporn and their entourages were escorted out by soldiers and taken into custody, as were the four Cabinet ministers.
Half an hour later, TV stations nationwide were forced to broadcast a signal from the military.
A stern-faced Prayuth suddenly appeared, flanked by the heads of the armed forces and police, informing his countrymen that the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council was now in charge.