Thai Junta Airs Videos to Show Detainees OK

By Todd Pitman & Thanyarat Doksone 28 May 2014

BANGKOK — Propaganda videos distributed by Thailand’s new military junta began airing Wednesday on television stations to assure the public that all those it is holding in custody are being treated well.

The footage, released army-run TV Channel 5 late Tuesday and broadcast on other stations Wednesday, showed several detainees speaking to army officers. Among them was Jatuporn Prompan, the leader the “Red Shirt” movement that supports the ousted government.

The army, which holds most of the government it overthrew, has summoned more than 260 people, mostly politicians, scholars, journalists and activists seen as critical of the regime. It is unknown how many are in custody.

Jatuporn, who was shown wearing a white T-shirt while talking to an army officer, seemed fatigued and appeared to have lost weight. He claimed he was “OK” and said, “Now everyone knows how each other feels and should do everything not to let the country lose.”

But Jatuporn is not able to speak freely, and the military has confiscated all cell phones of those in custody.

The May 22 military coup, Thailand’s second in eight years, deposed an elected government that had insisted for months that the nation’s fragile democracy was under attack from protesters, the courts, and finally the army.

The country is deeply split between an elite establishment based in Bangkok with political supporters in the south, and a poorer majority centered in the north and northeast that has begun to realize political and economic power.

Earlier this week, army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who was endorsed Monday by the king as the nation’s new head of government, warned potential opponents during a news conference not to criticize or protest, saying Thailand could revert to the “old days” of turmoil and street violence if they did.

On Tuesday, the military summoned two Thai newspaper journalists who had asked “inappropriate” questions to Prayuth during the event.

The reporters, from the Thairath and Bangkok Post dailies, had queried the junta leader about when and whether he would appoint a prime minister and organize elections. Prayuth gave no definitive answers, and abruptly walked away from the podium. The reporters were not detained and left freely.

Prayuth “wanted to tell them that right now, he’s no longer merely the army chief, he’s the leader who runs the country,” said Maj. Gen. Ponlapat Wannapak, the secretary to the Royal Thai Army. “To ask him in such an aggressive, pushy manner is not appropriate.”

Despite the political upheaval that has left the nation’s elected leadership in tatters, life has continued largely as normal in most of the country, with tourists still relaxing at beach resorts and strolling through Buddhist temples in Bangkok and elsewhere.

However, dozens of foreign governments have issued travel warnings, hotel bookings are being canceled, and American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift on Tuesday canceled a sold-out concert that had been scheduled on June 9. A curfew remains in effect, although it will be shortened Wednesday to midnight to 4 a.m. from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. earlier.

Education Minister Seized

On Tuesday, troops seized ousted Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, where he had just finished giving a news conference to condemn last week’s military takeover and call for a restoration of democratic rule.

The minister’s appearance before the international media on Tuesday was the first in public by any member of the ousted government.

Chaturon said that a “coup d’etat is not a solution to the problems or conflicts in Thai society, but will make the conflicts even worse.”

He warned that “from now on there will be more and more resistance. … It will be a disaster for this country.”

Before being taken into custody, Chaturon called the army detentions “absurd” and said “they are taking people who have done nothing wrong just because they might resist the coup.”

“The problem is, we don’t know how long they are going to be detained,” he said. “We don’t know what happened to them. We don’t really know.”

When the news conference was finished and Chaturon was being interviewed by a group of Thai journalists, soldiers entered the room, surrounded him, and escorted him out through a crowd of reporters. He was calm and smiled as he was taken away.

“I’m not afraid. If I was afraid, I wouldn’t be here,” Chaturon said, before being hustled into an elevator.

The junta has yet to map a way out of the crisis, but Prayuth has said there would be political and administrative reforms. On Monday, he gave the green light for the Finance Ministry to seek billions of dollars in loans to pay debts owed farmers under a disastrous rice scheme instituted by the ousted government.

The junta has given no timetable for restoring civilian rule, and Chaturon said Prayuth “might want to hold onto power for some time.”

Prayuth, he said, has “assigned the generals to take care of the jobs at the ministries — the tasks they know the least.”

Thai media reported Tuesday that the junta had established an advisory board with military and civilian members. It is headed by former Defense Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, who was seen as a major behind-the-scenes player in efforts to oust the civilian government, and is a possible interim prime minister.