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Top brass now hold all the cards

As this column went to press, military top brass had yet to deliver their response to Suthep Thaugsuban's proposal. Suthep announced on Wednesday evening that he would give the military until 8pm yesterday to answer his request that they cross over to support the protesters' campaign for reform. Only then would he make a decision on how to move forward.

The military is kingmaker at this critical juncture. So far Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha has kept his cards close to his chest. Most other top brass are waiting for his signal. Suthep has been able to mobilise millions of Thais in protests demanding the removal of the Yingluck government and the Thaksin regime that backs it, so that the country can start a reform process. But Suthep has yet to win the backing of the government machinery - the bureaucrats, police and military - for the people's revolution.

Yingluck yielded to the pressure by dissolving Parliament on Monday when millions of Thais staged a peaceful rally for her ousting. But for protesters that is still not enough - Yingluck still serves as caretaker PM and her Cabinet remains intact. They all answer to one man, Thaksin Shinawatra, who still calls the shots in Thai politics by remote control.

Suthep has been trying to woo support from the military, but to no avail. What he wants is the military top brass to send a message for Yingluck and her Cabinet to resign their caretaker status. This would pave the way for the appointment of a new prime minister and an interim government, followed by creation of a "people's council" entrusted with drafting a new Constitution and laying down the groundwork for reform. Underlying all this is an effort to rid Thailand off money politics and restore genuine democracy.

By keeping its position ambiguous, the military automatically sides with the Yingluck government. At this point, there is no neutral ground - either you back the people's aspiration for reform or you support the status quo of money politics. And it is obvious that money politics, plagued by corruption and concentration of power in one family, is bankrupting the country in a hurry.

Thailand is at a crossroads. One road leads to the empowerment of the people and reform, the other to maintaining the status quo. After dissolving Parliament, the Yingluck government has gone into election mode. February 2 has been thrown up as a possible date for the new election. But Suthep and the protesters argue that an election will do nothing to tackle Thailand's fundamental problems. Let's freeze political business for a while and allow the country to go through an overhaul, they say, then we can have a fresh election when things are ready. But for Yingluck's supporters the government has retreated far enough. Let's decide the future of the country via the ballot box, they counter.

The reality is that the military still holds enormous clout in politics. If the military is to support people's power and the call for reform, it should make its position clear and side with Suthep and the protesters. Then Yingluck and her Cabinet would be asked to step down from their caretaker-government status. But if the military chooses to keep neutral and ignore the national crisis, we can surmise it is siding with the Yingluck government. If the latter is the case, Suthep and the protesters will have no choice but to organise another, larger rally. That would heighten the chance of violence. And the situation could get out of hand.

We have reached an either/or predicament. The military can either put an end to the crisis, or it can let it deepen to the point of no return.


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