January 20, 2017 / 7:02 AM / in 10 months

Thai junta sets up military-led reconciliation panel ahead of election

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s junta is setting up a reconciliation panel of generals and experts to find common ground between political factions ahead of elections, the general named to lead the body said on Friday.

But critics questioned how neutral the panel would be given decades of military involvement in politics.

The army overthrew Thailand’s last elected prime minister in 2014, saying it had intervened to end street protests and years of political turmoil. It has promised to restore democracy to the Southeast Asian country.

General Chaichan Changmongkol, appointed by the junta to lead the panel, told reporters it would include the head of the armed forces, army specialists and civilian experts.

“We will spend three months listening to the views of every side and on every subject whether it is politics, reforms or education,” said Chaichan, who is permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defense.

The panel would then come up with an agreement that all sides would sign to ensure a peaceful transition, he said.

Thailand’s political divide is broadly between a traditionalist elite, centered on Bangkok, and the less prosperous parts of the country, which largely backed populist governments before the most recent coup.

Both Thailand’s main political parties said they were open to reconciliation if it was done fairly.

“The reconciliation process must be neutral, must be fair and must be according to the law,” said former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose was overthrown in the last coup.

The army has repeatedly postponed elections in the past in the name of reforms to bring about reconciliation. The army had initially promised an election this year, but a delay until 2018 is widely expected.

Critics say the generals are working to ensure their political influence after elections, including drafting a constitution that enshrines military power at the expense of political parties.

Kan Yuenyong, executive director of the Siam Intelligence Unit think-tank, told Reuters that reconciliation by an army-led panel would be hard.

“If they were sincere they would admit that they have been part of the problem and appoint a neutral panel,” he said.

Since helping to overthrow an absolute monarchy in what was then Siam in 1932, the military has staged 19 coups, 12 of them successful, and has provided 12 of its 29 prime ministers in that time.

The junta dismissed suggestions that it should also sign any reconciliation agreement and agree not to stage more coups.

“The majority of soldiers do not want to seize power. Having power isn’t everything,” Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters. “The citizens supported this coup because we restored stability.”

Writing by Cod Satrusayang; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Randy Fabi

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