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Thailand's army moves to allay coup fears

Thai police officers gather at the Royal Plaza near the Government House in Bangkok December 30, 2013. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom
Thai police officers gather at the Royal Plaza near the Government House in Bangkok December 30, 2013. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

By Viparat Jantraprap

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's powerful but politicized army sought to ease fears on Monday it might step in to resolve a festering political crisis, while anti-government protesters entrenched positions around Bangkok as they seek to disrupt a February election.

The latest round of an all-too-familiar political conflict in Thailand has dragged on for weeks. It flared last week into deadly clashes between police and protesters outside a stadium where registration for the February 2 poll was under way and at other rally sites around the Thai capital.

The head of the military added to the growing sense of unease on Thursday when he refused to rule out a coup after those clashes. A policeman and a protester were killed when an unidentified gunman opened fire, and scores were wounded in the clashes.

The demonstrators are determined to topple Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who they accuse of being a puppet of her self-exiled brother and former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thai army chief General Prayuth Chan-Ocha said after Thursday's clashes that "the door was neither open nor closed" on a coup, and social media across Thailand has buzzed with rumors of a coup ever since.

Army spokesman Winthai Suwaree sought to play down those fears, telling reporters on Monday that the rumors were causing "confusion and speculation".

"The army would like to insist there's no secret meetings or any operations by the military as speculated," Winthai said.

Until last week, the military had sought to remain aloof from the conflict, which represents years of rivalry between Bangkok's middle class and royalist establishment and the mostly poor, rural supporters of Yingluck and Thaksin in the populous north and northeast.

The violence flared again in the early hours of Saturday when a protester was killed by an unidentified gunman who opened fire on a small group of tents set up by protesters outside Yingluck's offices at Government House.

The rest of the capital remained relatively quiet. Tension flared again on Sunday when a large firecracker was thrown at another protest site, at a bridge over a canal near Government House, wounding five demonstrators.

That prompted the protesters to build sandbag walls across a street leading to their rally site at the bridge.

ISOLATED

Most of the protests have been centered in Bangkok, although demonstrators have also blocked registration for the polls in seven provinces in the south. The protesters, led by fiery former lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban, and the main opposition Democrat Party have many supporters in the south.

The Democrats have declared they would boycott the election which Yingluck called, and would likely win, in a bid to end the stalemate. The pro-establishment Democrats have not won polls since 1992.

Suthep and his followers want an appointed "people's council" to take over and begin a reform program before another election is held, at some point in the future.

Yingluck is looking increasingly isolated. More chaos on the streets could invite intervention by the military, while the judiciary could also step in if the deadlock persists.

Thailand's army has staged or attempted 18 coups in 81 years of democracy, including the removal of former telecoms tycoon Thaksin in 2006.

The protesters draw strength from Bangkok's conservative middle class, royalist bureaucracy and elite, who resent the rise of what they see as the venal, billionaire Shinawatra family and their political juggernaut which has won every election since 2001.

They say Thaksin has effectively manipulated a fragile democracy by buying the support of the rural poor with populist policies such as cheap healthcare, easy credit and subsidies for rice farmers. Many poor voters say Thaksin was the first leader to actually keep election promises to help them.

Thaksin fled into exile in 2008 before being sentenced to jail on graft charges he said were politically motivated. Yingluck's party miscalculated badly in November when it tried to force through an amnesty that would have allowed Thaksin to return a free man, sparking the latest round of protests.

Yingluck has said she is willing to consider any compromise that is in accord with the constitution. The ouster of her government would likely enrage Thaksin's passionate supporters whose aggressive protests against a Democrat-led government in 2010 ended in a bloody military crackdown.

(Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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