Bangkok: Thailand’s junta held talks on Wednesday with the political party it booted from office, in a much trumpeted but long-delayed reconciliation plan the generals say will heal political wounds in the bitterly divided nation.
Once one of Asia’s tiger economies, Thailand has been tarnished by more than a decade of political turbulence pockmarked by street protests, political violence and two military coups.
The latest putsch in 2014 brought the current junta to power and kicked out the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai party.
Senior Pheu Thai party leaders kicked off meetings with army officers on Wednesday, the latest political players involved in the talks that started on Valentine’s Day.
Observers and many of Thailand’s political parties remain sceptical the military can be an honest broker given its history of coups over the last seven decades.
But Pheu Thai officials struck an optimistic note after Wednesday’s talks.
“This initiative is good,” senior party leader Bhokin Barakula, told reporters.
“We are ready to cooperate with anyone who wants to bring peace and reconciliation to the country,” he said, adding all sides must be “free from bias”.
Defence Ministry spokesman Kongcheep Tantravanich described the talks as “respectful, creative and friendly”.
Thailand’s protracted political conflict broadly pits a Bangkok-based middle class and royalist elite, backed by parts of the military and judiciary, against rural and working-class voters loyal to exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck.
Parties linked to the Shinawatras have won every poll since 2001. The clan is loved among rural supporters who have long complained of being ignored by the Bangkok elite.
Their detractors accuse them of corruption, cronyism and economically costly policies.
Since seizing power the junta have banned political rallies and brought a slew of cases against Pheu Thai leaders and their allies.
Ousted prime minister Yingluck faces up to ten years in jail in an ongoing negligence trial.
The generals have vowed to return power soon but promised elections dates keep slipping.
They are in the process of passing a new constitution that they say will end political turmoil but which detractors say entrenches unelected officials over political parties.
One incendiary reconciliation topic is a political amnesty for all sides.
Moves by Pheu Thai to bring about an amnesty in 2013 — something which could have seen Thaksin return from self-imposed exile — led to large street protests by their opponents who agitated for, and were eventually granted, a military takeover.
Asked whether the amnesty came up in talks, Defence Ministry spokesman Kongcheep said Pheu Thai simply spoke of the need to “forgive each other”.
Leaders of the pre-coup protests, who loathe the Shinawatras, will meet the military on Friday 17 March.