By Alan Raybould and Orathai Sriring
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Leaders of the protest movement trying to overthrow Thailand's government outlined their aims at an armed forces seminar on Saturday but military leaders declined to take sides or say if a February election should take place.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra called a snap election on Monday, when 160,000 people besieged her office. She remains caretaker prime minister but the protesters want her to go now, with political reforms pushed through before any election.
The army has staged or attempted 18 coups in the past 80 years - including one against Yingluck's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, when he was premier in 2006 - and it can make or break any attempt to force her out.
It has declined to get involved in the present crisis and Thanasak Patimaprakorn, supreme commander of the armed forces, maintained that neutrality when he opened the forum, which was open to the public.
"We live under rules and reason. For sure, we protect the lives and assets of people. It's not what my job's all about, cracking down on riots and things like that," he said.
"To have peace and prosperity, we must solve these problems properly, sustainably, and not let the same old cycle return."
Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban told Thanasak that the military had intervened in similar situations in the past.
"If you take a decision and choose sides, this matter will be over. If you decide quickly, the people will praise you and you will be a hero," he said.
Thanasak evaded the issue of taking sides, again saying the duty of the armed services was to help all Thais.
At an earlier forum at Thammasat University in Bangkok, Suthep said Yingluck's government had no legitimacy. "Today, Thailand has no government and no parliament. Today, there is already a political vacuum."
He wants to use that perceived vacuum to set up a "people's council" and eradicate the influence of the "Thaksin regime".
His reform program remains sketchy but its priorities are becoming clearer.
A note circulated late on Friday said an interim government should focus on "laws relating to elections and political parties, to ensure that vote-buying and electoral fraud are prohibited".
It also promised "forceful laws to eradicate corruption", decentralization, the end of "superficial populist policies that enable corruption" and the reform of "certain state agencies such as the police force" so they are more accountable to the public.
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.
Ranged against him are a royalist establishment that feels threatened by his rise plus, in the past, the military. Some academics consider him a corrupt rights abuser, while the urban middle class resent what they see as their taxes being spent on wasteful populist policies that amount to vote-buying.
They see Yingluck as the puppet of Thaksin, who has been known to address cabinet meetings by Skype.
Boonyakiat Karavekphan, a political analyst at Ramkamhaeng University in Bangkok, had not expected much from the military-sponsored gathering, shown live on television.
"The military is very aware that it can't take sides and can't act as it has done in the past because the international community is watching closely," he said.
The government has accepted the need for reform and will kick off the process with a forum of its own on Sunday, but it insists that, legally, change can come only after the election.
The chances of that election taking place may become clearer at the start of next 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, a deputy prime minister in the Democrat-led government until 2011, 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.
(Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Nick Macfie)