Bangkok, October 17:

Thailand’s interim Cabinet has agreed to ease restrictions on political gatherings but will maintain martial law for the time being, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont said today.

Martial law and related restrictions on freedom of assembly and political activity were imposed after a bloodless

September 19 coup against elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

At today’s meeting, the Cabinet agreed to allow gatherings for political and other purposes in public places, but these are restricted to venues such as universities and auditoriums.

Under the post-coup restrictions, gatherings of more than five persons were banned.

Surayud said the measure to ease restrictions would take effect only after consultations with the military — which has formed an advisory council to the government — and approval from a newly appointed National Legislative Assembly.

“I want people to participate (in politics) and to listen to their opinions,” Surayud told reporters after the Cabinet meeting, the second since the military appointed Surayud to the premier’s job on October 1.

Surayud said specifically that members of political parties will be allowed to hold meetings. Their gatherings had also been banned under a separate order.

He said further discussion was needed before martial law could be lifted.

Surayud denied the easing of the ban was in response to pressure from foreign countries.

The government also said today it would consider allowing ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra to return from exile in London only after lifting martial law imposed after a coup.

Defence Minister Boonrawd Somtas said the post-coup government would discuss Thaksin’s request to return home only after martial law is lifted.