By Orathai Sriring
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's military offered on Sunday to help the politically polarized country hold a "fair and clean" election next year, suggesting the armed forces may play a role in a vote aimed at ending protests seeking to topple the government.
The idea was raised at a forum organized by the caretaker government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who last week called an election for February 2 to try to defuse protests targeting her brother, ousted ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and his influence on Thailand's political system.
The protesters, backed by Bangkok's elite, have rejected the proposed election and want to set up a "people's council" that would eradicate the influence of the "Thaksin regime" and introduce reforms following a decade of election wins by Thaksin or his allies on broad support from the urban and rural poor.
General Nipat Thonglek, the Defense Ministry's permanent secretary, said at the forum: "The military wants to see the February 2 election. If there are signs that the election will not be fair, the military is ready to make it fair and clean."
It's unclear how the military would do that. Nipat did not elaborate, but armed forces chief General Tanasak Patimapragorn said on Saturday he wanted to see the general election take place and that there should be "a central panel" to help educate the public about free and fair elections.
Although army leaders have expressed neutrality in the crisis, the military has a long history of intervening in politics in support of the traditional Bangkok elite that includes generals, royal advisers and old-money families who have backed both the protests and the opposition Democrat Party.
The military has staged or attempted 18 coups over the past 80 years, including one in 2006 to remove Thaksin.
Military sources say protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban is backed by two powerful retired generals, former Defense minister General Prawit Wongsuwan and former army chief General Anupong Paochinda. Both have a history of enmity with Thaksin and remain influential in the current military establishment.
Suthep is a former deputy prime minister in the previous Democrat-led government that Yingluck's party beat by a landslide in a 2011 election.
The forum comes a day after Suthep outlined his movement's aims at an armed forces seminar, urging the military to join his movement and repeating his demands that Yingluck resign to make way for an interim government of appointed leaders whose reforms would clean up a political system he says Thaksin corrupted.
UNASSAILABLE AT THE POLLS
Thailand's eight-year political conflict centers on Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon popular among the rural poor because of policies pursued when he was in power and carried on by governments allied to him after he was toppled.
He gained an unassailable mandate that he used to advance the interests of big companies, including his own. Since 2008, he has chosen to live in exile after being sentenced in absentia to jail for abuse of power, a charge he calls politically motivated.
The chances of the election taking place may become clearer at the start of this week when the opposition Democrat Party, Thailand's oldest, decides whether to take part. Yingluck's Puea Thai Party seems almost certain to win again.
Democrat lawmakers resigned from parliament on December 8 and joined the street protests.
Suthep had resigned earlier to lead the movement, which gained impetus in early November after Yingluck's government tried to push through a political amnesty bill that would have allowed Thaksin to return home a free man.
As deputy premier, Suthep authorized a military crackdown to end weeks of anti-government protests by Thaksin supporters in central Bangkok in 2010. Scores of protesters died and Suthep has been charged with murder in connection to the crackdown.
(Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat. Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Ron Popeski)