BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont rejected a military demand for emergency powers to halt growing anti-government protests on Thursday and said a general election would be held in December.
“There will be no imposition of the emergency decree for now because the situation does not warrant it,” Surayud told reporters after meeting the generals who ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra last year.
“I don’t want to see confrontations and clashes among people who are all Thais. So we will try our utmost to keep the situation from reaching that stage,” Surayud said ahead of a planned anti-coup rally on Friday.
Led by army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who worried the protests would get out of hand and derail elections now planned for December 16 or 22, the decree request had unnerved investors and outraged democracy activists.
The decree, first issued by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra three years ago to contain a separatist insurgency in the Muslim deep south, would have allowed detention without charge for 30 days, phone taps, intercepting e-mails and press censorship.
Martial law imposed after the September coup was in name only and rarely enforced on the streets of Bangkok. But political parties have bristled at a ban on their activities.
Thai shares ended up nearly 0.40 percent before Surayud’s announcement. The main index fell 1.4 percent on news of the decree request on Wednesday, which enraged activists.
“A decision to resort to an emergency decree is a serious threat to democracy,” said Waeng Tochirakarn, leader of the Confederation for Democracy.
“It destroys fundamental democratic rights and freedom as it empowers government officials to freely carry out house searches, arrests, confiscate printed materials. We will oppose this to the end,” he said.
Surayud apparently agreed with him, but Sonthi had wanted more police and soldiers at Friday’s anti-coup rally because of the danger of things getting out of hand.
But police and Bangkok city officials appeared to find a way out by restricting access to the protest venue, Sanam Luang square near the glittering Grand Palace, until April 5.
Police said any political rallies there would need permission from the city administration.
Critics say Sonthi overreacted to protests which have grown bigger in the past month but have remained peaceful, like those against Thaksin last year that drew up to 100,000 people.
“Almost out of the blue, the CNS chairman wants Bangkok placed under the most draconian law in Thai history,” the Bangkok Post newspaper said in an editorial.
Even if some of the anti-coup rallies involved Thaksin supporters, they had a right to speak out in a peaceful manner, it said. “That is a vital part of democracy.” Last weekend, the largest anti-coup rally so far drew 3,000 people to Sanam Luang, where they demanded an immediate election and threatened to boycott a referendum on a constitution a military-appointed committee is writing.
But Thailand has a history of protest demonstrations against military governments degenerating into bloody clashes, most recently in May 1992 when the deaths of dozens of civilians forced a military-backed government to step down.
Additional reporting by Viparat Jantraprap and Panarat Thepgumpanat