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Protesters to test Thai junta, no vote for over a year

Passersby pose for a photo with Thai soldiers standing guard on a Bangkok street after martial law was declared on May 20, 2014.
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Protesters will test Thai coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha this weekend after he said there would be no elections in Thailand for more than a year to give the military time to engineer reforms.

Prayuth ousted the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on May 22 after months of sometimes violent protests. The general set out a plan for reconciliation and reform late on Friday in a televised address to the nation.

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Reforms could only be implemented if there was peace and stability and would take about a year, he said. After that, elections would be held.

"All that I have outlined will not succeed if all sides do not cease demonstrating politically," he said. "This process will take approximately a year, depending on the situation."

Thailand has become polarised between supporters of Yingluck and her influential brother, deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra, and the royalist establishment that sees Thaksin and his populist ways as a threat to the old order.

Thaksin's appeal among poorer voters, especially in the populous, rural northeast and north, has ensured that he or his allies have won every election since 2001.

Prayuth justified his takeover and the tough measures he introduced afterwards, which have included the detention of about 250 people, censorship of the media and a ban on gatherings. Most of those detained have been freed.

"We cannot keep fighting each other just because we think differently," said Prayuth. "Every side must find a way to cooperate."

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Despite martial law and a ban on gatherings, small protests against the military takeover have been held almost daily in Bangkok. There has been no serious violence.

For a second day on Friday, soldiers mounted a big operation at the central Victory Monument, sealing it off and preventing anyone from gathering. Sometimes rowdy crowds had faced off with soldiers and police at the Bangkok landmark earlier in the week.

Activists, spreading word through social media, say they will hold a big show of opposition on the weekend, to press for the restoration of democracy.

"There will be big demonstrations and events all over the country on Saturday and Sunday," said one protester at the monument late on Thursday.

The general set out the path to elections in his address. He outlined a three-phase process beginning with reconciliation which would take up to three months. A temporary constitution would be drawn up and an interim prime minister and cabinet chosen in a second phase, he said, and an election would be the final phase.

The U.S. and other foreign governments have condemned the coup and called for a rapid return to democracy. The Australian government on Saturday reduced military ties with Thailand and banned coup leaders from travelling to Australia.

Prayuth made a direct appeal for patience from Thailand's "international friends" in his address.

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"We understand that we are living in a democratic world. All we are asking for is give us time to reform," he said, sitting at a table with flowers in front of him and portraits of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit on a wall behind him.

"We believe that you will choose our kingdom before a flawed democratic system."

The political crisis and coup have come at a time of anxiety in Thailand over the issue of royal succession. The king, the world's longest reigning monarch, is 86 and spent the years from 2009-2013 in hospital. The monarchy is Thailand's most important institution.

The stumbling economy is a priority for the military and Prayuth promised that the 2015 budget would be in order and public spending would be transparent.

Prayuth has asked officials to look into the possibility of reducing Thailand's seven percent value-added tax, deputy army spokesman Colonol Weerachon Sukondhapatipak said on Saturday.

Gross domestic product shrank 2.1 percent in the first quarter of 2014 as the anti-government protests damaged confidence and scared off tourists.