Protesters in Thailand confronted troops face to face and demanded they “go back” as anger over the army’s seizing of power and the declaration of a coup sparked heated protests in different parts of the country today.
In Bangkok, hundreds of anti-coup demonstrators rallied and a small number of them clashed with heavily armed troops, who dragged a number of the protesters away. There were also demonstrations in the northern city of Chiang Mai.
Meanwhile, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, head of the armed forces, announced that he was scrapping the Senate, the upper house of Thailand’s parliament, and assuming all law-making responsibility. He also transferred the national police chief, the head of a special investigation unit and a senior bureaucrat in the defence ministry to so-called “inactive posts”.
At the same time, the junta ordered that 35 activists, academics and journalists report to the military, taking the number of people the army wishes to detain to more than 180. Among those being held are former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and members of her family.
The steady tightening of the junta’s grip has been widely condemned internationally. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, is the latest to add her voice to the groundswell of criticism, urging Thailand to “ensure respect for human rights and a prompt restoration of the rule of law in the country”.
Most of those who have been detained were linked to the government of Yingluck Shinawatra or a political movement associated with it, or were dissidents and activists. A senior journalist, Pravit Rojanaphruk, of The Nation newspaper, was also ordered to give himself up.
A spokesman for the military, Colonel Weerachon Sukondhapatipak, claimed the various politicians and leaders who have been held were being well treated and said that the military’s aim was to achieve a political compromise. He said that those who did not appear when summoned would become a matter for “law enforcement”.
“This is in a bid for everybody who is involved in the conflict to calm down and have time to think,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “We don’t intend to limit their freedom, but it is to relieve the pressure.”
Meanwhile, the junta said Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej had sent a letter confirming that he in turn had received two letters informing him of developments. There was no mention as to whether the 86-year-old monarch, who has widespread support, had said anything else. In the past, the king has been used to legitimise previous coups.
Curiously, the junta found time to alter its name, informing reporters that it should no longer be referred to as the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council, but rather the National Peace and Order Council. Colonel Sukondhapatipak said it had taken this step to correct its previously incorrect grammar and to help its international image.
The move is unlikely to do that. With the junta’s grip becoming firmer, the international community has repeated its criticism of the army’s move and updated travel advice for its citizens. The United States has urged Americans to reconsider all non-essential travel to Thailand, while the United Kingdom advised visitors to “exercise extreme caution”.
Despite the threat to them, protesters have continued to demonstrate against the coup. On Saturday afternoon, scores of them marched past the city’s Saphan Kwai overhead train station, carrying banners and chanting. “We want to get our rights back – for voting,” said one of the protesters, Kanokorn Kongmoul, who was riding on the back of a motorbike. “We want to get to Democracy Monument. We will break through the troops.”
As it was they were pushed back by the police and soldiers, and forced to take an alternative route to the monument, the site of another demonstration later that evening. There, up to 500 protesters gathered, chanting as they circled the monument, which was built to mark the coup in 1932 that led to Thailand being a constitutional monarchy, rather than an absolute monarchy.
Among those holding up signs and placards, several of them showing images of Kim Jong-un, was a 79-year-old woman called Sunee. She said that she was 20 when she first experienced a coup and had seen many since then. She said she did not want Thailand to become like North Korea. “We want Prayuth Chan-ocha to get out. We want the coup government to get out,” she said. “Prayuth has betrayed the country and he should get out.”
As Thailand’s coup gained strength, so campaigners sought to highlight the role of those countries who have supported the nation’s military over the years. On Saturday, it was announced that the US was suspending £2.1m in military aid to Thailand from its overall aid package of £6.2m. Campaigners in Britain said that over the last six years, the UK government had licensed sales of more than £40m worth of military equipment.
“It is shocking that despite continuing unrest in Thailand, the UK government lists Thailand as a priority market for arms exports,” said Henry McLaughlin, of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. “The government must stop promoting arms to countries such as Thailand which have ongoing internal conflict. UK-supplied weapons only reinforce a military response to the country’s problems.”
Thailand has suffered from turmoil since a coup in 2006 which ousted then premier Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications tycoon and the brother of Yingluck Shinawatra. Since then several governments associated with Thaksin Shinawatra have been elected, only to be ousted by constitutional courts. Bangkok has for the past six months been rocked by anti-government protests that had sought the removal of Yingluck Shinawatra. The protesters had rejected elections until a series of unspecified reforms were carried out. They wanted to reduce the franchise and have an appointed premier.
Meanwhile, supporters of the government, along with members of the Red Shirt movement which have largely supported Mr Shinawatra, said the anti-government protesters threatened to destroy Thailand’s status as a democratic country. Many believe an associated factor is a behind the scenes scrambling for position ahead of the royal succession that will take place when Thailand’s 86-year-old king dies.
What happens next remains unclear. It does seem apparent that General Chan-ocha is seeking to purge all people associated with MrShinawatra. The situation is tense, confusing and could quickly get uglier. What is obvious is that General Chan-ocha has all the power. On Friday, he met senior officials and told them that reforms must come before any elections. Six senior military officers have been appointed to run the country.
According to reports, the army chief told the meeting: “We must have economic, social and political reforms before elections. If the situation is peaceful, we are ready to return power to the people.”
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