Thai Protesters Test Military's Resolve
By Khettiya Jittapong and Paul Mooney 26 May 2014
BANGKOK — Thailand’s military tightened its grip on power on Sunday as it moved to quell growing protests, saying anyone violating its orders would be tried in military court.
It also took its first steps to revitalize a battered economy, saying nearly a million farmers owed money under the previous government’s failed rice-subsidy scheme would be paid within a month.
The military overthrew the government on Thursday after months of debilitating and at times violent confrontation between the populist government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the royalist establishment.
Critics say the coup will not end the conflict between the rival power networks: the Bangkok-based elite dominated by the military and the bureaucracy, and an upstart clique led by Yingluck’s brother and former telecommunication mogul Thaksin Shinawatra. The Shinawatras draw much of their influence from the provinces.
The military detained numerous people including Yingluck and many of her ministers, party officials and supporters. Leaders of anti-government protests against Yingluck were also held.
The military said anyone detained would be freed in a week and on Sunday it relaxed restrictions on Yingluck, allowing her to go home though she remained under military supervision, a senior military official said.
“She is free to come and go as she pleases but will have to inform us as a sign of mutual respect and we will have soldiers guarding her home,” said the officer, who declined to be identified.
The military has thrown out the constitution, censored the media and dismissed the upper house Senate, the last functioning legislature. On Sunday, it said anyone accused of insulting the monarchy or violating its orders would face military court.
Power lies in the hands of army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha and his junta and their priorities are stamping out dissent and tending to the economy.
An army spokesman warned against protests and told the media to be careful in its reporting too.
“For those who use social media to provoke, please stop because it’s not good for anyone,” deputy army spokesman Winthai Suvaree said in a televised statement.
Despite the warnings, a small crowd of protesters, some holding handwritten signs such as “Get out Dictators,” formed outside a Bangkok shopping center and grew through the day.
Hundreds of soldiers, most with riot shields, lined up to contain the crowd and there was some shouting and pushing and at least two people were detained, a Reuters reporter said.
By late afternoon about 1,000 people had gathered at the Victory Monument, a central city hub, confronting soldiers at times but there were no clashes.
In his first public comments since the coup, Thaksin said on Twitter he was saddened and he called on the army to treat everyone fairly. Thaksin was ousted as prime minister in a 2006 coup and has lived in self-exile since a 2008 graft conviction.
The military on Sunday met leaders of state and private commercial agencies, economic ministry officials, central bank and stock market officials and business leaders.
“The economy needs to recover. If there is something wrong, we have to find quick solutions,” Thawatchai Yongkittikul, secretary general of the Thai Bankers’ Association, told reporters, citing General Prayuth.
“The burning issues that need to be solved are the rice-buying scheme and the budget plan for the 2015 fiscal year.”
A rice-subsidy scheme organized by Yingluck’s government failed, leaving huge stockpiles of the grain and farmers owed more than US$2.5 billion. The military said all farmers should be paid in a month.
The military also said King Bhumibol Adulyadej will on Monday endorse Prayuth as leader of the ruling military council, an important formality in a country where the monarchy is the most important institution. On Saturday, the army said the king had acknowledged the takeover.
An undercurrent of the crisis is anxiety over the issue of royal succession. The king, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, is 86 and spent the years from 2009 to 2013 in hospital.
Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn does not command the same devotion as his father, but some Thaksin supporters have been making a point of showing their loyalty to the prince.
The military, which has launched 19 successful or attempted coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, has banned gatherings of more than five people and imposed a 10 pm to 5 am curfew.
But that has not deterred critics who since Friday have held small protests, not just in Bangkok but in the north and northeast, Thaksin’s main strongholds.
But former Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang, who is now in hiding, told Reuters by telephone that he doubted the ability of Thaksin’s loyalists to oppose the takeover.
“This is very serious indeed, it’s very bad,” Chaturon said. “It seems they’ll detain a lot of people and we don’t know for how long. It’s going to be very oppressive.”
The latest turmoil in a nearly decade-long clash between the establishment and Thaksin has hurt Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy. In the first quarter, the economy shrank 2.1 percent.
Many countries have issued travel warnings for Thailand, damaging tourism which accounts for about 10 percent of the economy.
The United States condemned the coup and suspended about $3.5 million in military aid and various training exercises and visits by commanders.