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Thai army chief assumes role as mediator, uses martial law to promote crisis talks

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Thai soldiers stand guard outside a hall of the Army Club in Bangkok, Thailand Wednesday, May 21, 2014. Thailand's army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha assumed the role of mediator Wednesday by summoning the country's key political rivals for face-to-face talks one day after imposing martial law. The meeting ended without any resolution, however, underscoring the profound challenge the army faces in trying to end the country's crisis. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)

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Thai soldiers stand guard outside a hall of the Army Club in Bangkok, Thailand Wednesday, May 21, 2014. Thailand's army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha assumed the role of mediator Wednesday by summoning the country's key political rivals for face-to-face talks one day after imposing martial law. The meeting ended without any resolution, however, underscoring the profound challenge the army faces in trying to end the country's crisis. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)

BANGKOK - Thailand's army chief assumed the role of mediator Wednesday by summoning the country's key political rivals for face-to-face talks one day after imposing martial law. The meeting ended without any resolution, however, underscoring the profound challenge the army faces in trying to end the country's crisis.

Residents, meanwhile, tried to make sense of the dramatic turn of events after six months of protests aimed at ousting the government.

Around Bangkok there was little sign of tension, and most soldiers that had occupied key intersections in the capital a day earlier had withdrawn. Across the country, people went about their work normally. Students went to school, and the usual tourist droves crowded luxury resorts, relaxing on white sand beaches unfazed by the crisis.

Martial law for now appeared to be playing out primarily behind closed doors, as army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha "invited" the key powerbrokers in the political crisis to meet for the first time since it escalated six months ago. The army interrupted regular programming on national television Wednesday to announce the meeting at Bangkok's Army Club, which it said was being called "to solve the political conflict smoothly."

Many of the country's highest-profile figures were summoned for a summit of political enemies that was unthinkable until now. They included the acting prime minister — who sent four representatives in his place — and anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, as well as Suthep's rival from the pro-government Red Shirt group, Jatuporn Prompan.

The meeting ended with at least one agreement: To meet again Thursday.

"(It) was conducted in a very friendly atmosphere," said army deputy spokesman Veerachon Sukhontapatipak. "Everyone seemed to understand that right now we have to work together."

Another spokesman, Col. Winthai Suvaree, said Prayuth gave the participants "homework" and told them to consider five points on possible resolutions to the conflict, consult their supporters and report back Thursday with answers.

Also summoned were leaders of the ruling Pheu Thai party and the opposition Democrat Party, as well as the five-member Election Commission and representatives from the Senate.

Prayuth told a news conference Tuesday that without martial law imposed, the political opponents would never come together to broker peace.

"That's why martial law was needed, or else who would listen?" said Prayuth. "If I call them in, they have to come."

Prayuth invoked the military's expanded powers Tuesday and issued more than a dozen edicts that included broad powers of censorship over the media, the Internet and vaguely defined threats to prosecute opponents.

The military insisted it was not seizing power, but said it was acting to prevent violence and restore stability in the deeply divided country. But he has provided little clarity on a path forward, amid speculation both at home and abroad that the declaration of martial law was a prelude to a military coup.

In Washington, the top American diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel, called for the early restitution of democracy and free and fair elections.

Human Rights Watch criticized the Obama administration for failing to call for the immediate reversal of martial law. The group issued a statement that called the army's move and its broad restrictions "effectively a coup that threatens the human rights of all Thais."

The military, which has staged 11 successful coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, is widely seen as sympathetic to the protesters seeking to oust the current government.

More than a dozen edicts have been issued that expanded the military's power, including censorship of the media.

The army banned demonstrators from marching outside their existing protest sites and banned any broadcast or publication that could "incite unrest." Fourteen politically affiliated satellite and cable TV stations — on both sides of the political divide — were asked to stop broadcasting. Typically under martial law, the army can also detain people without a warrant for up to a week and search private property without a court order.

But for most people, there was no tangible change in their everyday life.

"After 24 hours of martial law, I have not spotted a single soldier," said Buntham Lertpatraporn, a 50-year-old vendor of Thai-style doughnuts in the capital's central business district along Silom Road. "I've only seen soldiers on TV."

"My life has not changed at all," he said Wednesday. "But in my mind I feel a little frightened, because I don't know how it will end."

Thailand, an economic hub for Southeast Asia whose turquoise waters and idyllic beaches are a world tourist destination, has been gripped by off-and-on political turmoil since 2006, when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled by a military coup after being accused of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for Thailand's king.

His overthrow triggered a power struggle that in broad terms pits Thaksin's supporters among a rural majority against a conservative establishment in Bangkok.

The latest round of unrest started in November, when demonstrators took to the streets to try to oust then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister. She dissolved the lower house of Parliament in December in a bid to ease the crisis, and later led a weakened caretaker government.

Earlier this month, the constitutional Court ousted Yingluck for abuse of power. But the move, which left the ruling party in charge, did little to resolve the conflict.

The army action followed threats by anti-government protesters to intensify their campaign to oust the ruling party, and an attack last week on protesters that killed three people and injured over 20.

The army could play a key role in mediating a compromise to the political divide, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. But if it fails to do so, the losing side will likely launch more protests and spark more turmoil, he said.

The anti-government protesters want an interim, unelected government to implement vaguely defined reforms to fight corruption — and to remove the Shinawatra family's influence from politics. Critics at home and abroad call the idea unconstitutional and undemocratic.

Jatuporn, the leader of the pro-government Red Shirt movement, has said his group could accept martial law, but wouldn't tolerate a coup.

___

Associated Press writer Todd Pitman in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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