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Thai protest leader wants 12 months to push through reforms

Friday, 13 December 2013 - 12:59pm IST | Agency: Reuters

The leader of a protest group trying to overthrow Thailand's government said on Friday the prime minister should either step down or be forced out, and his movement would then need around a year to push through reforms.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has called an early election for February 2 in an attempt to end the street protests but Suthep Thaugsuban, a veteran lawmaker who resigned from parliament to lead the movement, has rejected the move. Knowing that allies of Yingluck's brother, ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, would probably win any election, he wants an unelected "people's council" to run the country. "Instead of issuing laws that benefit the people ... they have used the parliamentary system in the wrong way to help just one group of people, ... to wash the guilt of Thaksin Shinawatra," Suthep said on Friday, referring to a political amnesty bill that acted as a catalyst for the current crisis.

The "soft way out" of the impasse, he said, was for Yingluck to step down and let his council push through reforms. Failing that, the people would simply seize power, he said at an event held to present his ideas to the media. "Once we complete this in 12 to 14 months' time ... everything will return to normal," Suthep said. The protest movement, which wants to install an unelected "people's council", will meet military leaders at the weekend to present its case, but has rebuffed an invitation from Yingluck to join a seminar to debate post-election reforms.

Thailand's eight-year political conflict centres on Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon popular among the rural poor because of policies pursued when he was in power and carried on by governments allied to him when he was ousted. Thaksin, who now lives in self-imposed exile to escape a jail sentence for abuse of power, gained an unassailable mandate that he used to advance the interests of big companies, including his own. He has dismissed the graft charges as politically motivated. Ranged against him are Thailand's royalist establishment who feel threatened by his rise, in the past backed by the military.

Trade unions and academics see him as a corrupt rights abuser, while the urban middle class resent what they see as their taxes being used as his political war chest. The protest movement under Suthep Thaugsuban appears in no mood to compromise, even if the numbers on the street have dwindled to just a few thousand from 160,000 on Monday, when Yingluck announced the snap election for February 2. "We have said we will not take part in any government forum as this government is not legitimate," Akanat Promphan, a spokesman for the movement, told reporters on Thursday. That puts the focus squarely on Saturday's meeting between the chiefs of the armed forces, Suthep and other interested parties "to find a way out for Thailand", according to a statement issued by the military late on Thursday.

The politically powerful army has staged or attempted 18 coups in the past 80 years, including the ouster of Thaksin in 2006, and its motives now are unclear. It has declined to get involved in the crisis so far, but has offered to mediate. On Thursday, Suthep sought to drum up support for his plans at a meeting with business leaders, talking of a "people's assembly" of up to 400 members from a cross-section of society. His protest movement, he said, would get 100 of the seats. Suthep has offered little in the way of policy proposals beyond those vague assembly plans and is prone to throw out perplexing and unenforceable orders during rally speeches, for example, demanding that Yingluck be arrested for treason and an order to civil servants and security forces to report to him. 

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