BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha gathered the leaders of pro- and anti-government protests for a closed-door meeting on Thursday in a last-ditch bid to break the political deadlock that has dragged on the country for six months.
After about an hour of talks between factions at Bangkok’s Army Club, the general ran out of patience.
“As we cannot find a way to bring the country to peace and noone will back down, I would like to announce that I will take power,” he calmly told those in the room, according to an electoral commissioner who was at the talks.
“Everyone must sit still.”
His decision to stage the country’s 12th successful coup since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932 was based on rival factions’ deeply entrenched positions which, as the haggling went on, showed no sign of shifting.
According to two sources who attended the meeting, but who declined to be identified, remnants of the cabinet of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra told participants that they would not resign.
Yingluck was forced to step down by a court two weeks ago, but her caretaker government remained nominally in charge of a country facing more turmoil and a looming economic recession.
Anti-government protest leaders, who have been camped out in downtown Bangkok, were led at the meeting by firebrand politician Suthep Thaugsuban. He said they refused to stop their demonstrations.
Suthep has campaigned for the government to step down, the installation of an interim prime minister and reforms to rid the country of the pervasive influence of Yingluck’s brother and former premier, Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin himself was ousted by a coup in 2006 and lives in self-imposed exile.
For their part, pro-government “red shirt” protesters led by Jatuporn Prompan, whose temporary base is on the outskirts of the Thai capital, vowed to maintain their campaign to save the crippled government.
They have also threatened to fight if the army seized power.
“In short, nobody could agree to anything,” said the electoral commissioner.
“THINGS HAPPENED VERY QUICKLY”
Just before 3 p.m. (9 a.m BST), Suthep raised his hand and asked to speak to the general, and invited Jatuporn to join the discussion. Witnesses of the meeting were not privy to that smaller confab, but it proved the last straw for Prayuth.
“After that, things happened very quickly,” a pro-government leader who attended the talks told Reuters.
Soldiers entered the room just as Prayuth left. He was whisked away by car to declare, on national television, that he had taken control of the country.
Thai television stations interrupted programmes to broadcast the army emblem and military music. A nation accustomed to tell-tale signs of a coup awaited the announcement with little emotion, only resignation.
Back at the Army Club, electoral commissioners and senators were taken to a room on a floor below the venue of the talks.
Soldiers then surrounded Suthep and whisked him away in a white van, which first alerted media waiting outside the building that something was afoot.
Hundreds more troops arrived, using vehicles to block the entrances to the club and rounding up everyone left from the meeting. Like Suthep, they were taken away in vans.
They included representatives of the Puea Thai Party that was being deposed, the opposition Democrat Party and pro- and anti-government protest leaders.
It was not clear how long Prayuth had been contemplating a full military coup. But by bringing all sides together for talks at the Army Club, his forces were able to detain many of the country’s most powerful political figures at the same time.
Soldiers had told attendees not to bring mobile phones into Thursday’s meeting, because they did not want anybody taking pictures, the electoral commissioner said.
Acting Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan did not attend the talks, although the army has summoned his cabinet to report to a military compound in the north of Bangkok.
Thailand has been locked in a protracted power struggle between supporters of Thaksin and opponents backed by the royalist establishment.
Niwatthamrong was the fourth pro-Thaksin prime minister to fall since the coup against Thaksin in 2006.
Additional reporting by Vorasit Satienlerk; Writing by Simon Webb; Editing by Mike Collett-White