Thai army chief vows to stay out of election

BANGKOK, March 22, 2011 (AFP) - Thailand's powerful army chief on Tuesday vowed not to meddle in the kingdom's elections and stressed his neutrality following coup rumours and increased street protests this year.

General Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who is considered a key ally of the ruling Democrat party, said the army would help "steer our country back to democracy" and would abide by the results of a poll due in June or July.

"It is up to the people to decide which party will form a government. Whichever it is I am still the army chief," he told reporters.

Prayut insisted that the vote would be the best way to end years of political turbulence in the country, echoing comments by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on Monday.

Coup rumours were stoked by the opposition earlier this year following fresh protests by the nationalist and royalist "Yellow Shirt" movement and violent border clashes between Thailand and neighbouring Cambodia.

The military has often become involved in politics in Thailand, which has seen 18 actual or attempted coups since 1932, but both the army and government have denied an impending intervention.

"We will be neutral in the election because we cannot control anyone. The army must comply with election law and all troops can cast votes in their respective constituencies without pressure from the military," Prayut said.

He said the army could be involved in election security, in a sign that the politically divided nation, still recovering from deadly street protests last year in which over 90 people died, could see friction during the poll.

"I have instructed all army unit leaders to be prepared for the election and supply manpower to ensure security at polling stations," he said.

The Thai government on Tuesday cited "threats by some ill-intentioned people" after it agreed to extend special powers across seven districts of Bangkok until April 24 under the Internal Security Act.

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