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Thai forces out to stifle unrest after army chief sets election plan

By Simon Webb and Martin Petty

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai police and soldiers flooded downtown Bangkok on Saturday to pre-empt further protests against a May 22 coup after the army chief said a return to democracy would take more than a year.

In a televised address late on Friday, General Prayuth Chan-ocha said the military would need time to reconcile Thailand's antagonistic political forces and to engineer reforms.

Prayuth, who ousted the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra after months of sometimes violent protests, appealed for patience from Thailand's international allies after outlining his reform plan to the Southeast Asian nation.

But the response from foreign governments was to keep up the pressure on the ruling junta to call elections quickly.

At a conference in Singapore on Saturday, U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel urged the Thai armed forces to release detainees, end censorship and "move immediately to restore power to the people of Thailand, through free and fair elections".

Australia scaled back relations with the Thai military on Saturday and banned coup leaders from travelling there. [ID:nL3N0OH06L]

"We understand that we are living in a democratic world. All we are asking for is give us time to reform," Prayuth said in his address on Friday, seated 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."

"THREE, NOT FIVE"

At the heart of nearly a decade of political turmoil in Southeast Asia's second biggest economy is conflict between the Bangkok-based royalist establishment dominated by the military, old-money families and the bureaucracy, and an upstart clique led by former telecommunication mogul Thaksin Shinawatra which draws much of its strength from the provinces.

Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and has lived in self-exile since a 2008 corruption conviction, was the real power behind the deposed government of his sister, Yingluck.

Security was tight around a normally traffic- and pedestrian-clogged Victory Monument where protests flared earlier in the week. The closure of the overhead city rail station at the landmark reduced the number of people on streets and walkways.

Security was being enforced predominantly by police, who had at least seven large trucks parked nearby. Police stood taking photos of each other, chatting to a small group of soldiers standing around a Humvee with a loudspeaker strapped to the top.

Trucks and police also lined the road near a central shopping mall where demonstrations took place a week earlier, but there was no sign of any rallies.

A man was arrested and another fled when police thwarted their attempt to hold a protest at another downtown shopping centre. One of the men held up a sign before a media scrum that said "election only" for less than a minute before police pounced and bundled him into a police truck.

Later, three women sat on the steps of a McDonald's restaurant and sang a song seeking the return to democracy.

"There are only three of us, not five," one of the women shouted at police, referring to a ban on gatherings of five or more people.

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. Activists, spreading word through social media, had said they would hold a big show of opposition at the weekend to press for the restoration of democracy.

'TIME TO REFORM' Prayuth, in his speech of about 40 minutes, 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, taking about a year, he said.

An election would be the third and final phase.

He did not elaborate on reforms but Thaksin's opponents want changes to the electoral system to end his influence. 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.

The political crisis comes 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 struggling economy is a priority for the military. Prayuth has asked officials to look into the possibility of reducing a 7 percent value-added tax, deputy army spokesman Colonel Weerachon Sukondhapatipak said.

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

(Additional reporting by Viparat Jantraprap; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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