BANGKOK – Armed troops detained a Thai Cabinet minister who defiantly emerged from hiding Tuesday to condemn last week’s military coup and urge a return to civilian rule, in the first public appearance by any member of the ousted government.
About half a dozen soldiers took former Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang into custody in a chaotic scene at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, where he had just finished giving a surprise news conference.
The junta, which seized power last Thursday, already had detained most top members of the Southeast Asian country’s ousted elected government and ordered the rest to surrender.
Chaturon called for elections and warned that resistance to the army’s power grab could grow, which could lead to “a disaster for this country.”
When his 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 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 that cannot win elections, and a poorer majority centered in the north and northeast that has begun to realize political and economic power.
A “coup d’etat is not a solution to the problems or conflicts in Thai society, but will make the conflicts even worse,” Chaturon said.
Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who was endorsed Monday by the king as the nation’s new head of government, has warned opponents not to criticize or protest, saying Thailand could revert to the “old days” of turmoil and street violence if they did.
Still, several hundred people gathered Tuesday around Bangkok’s Victory Monument to protest the coup.
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 exotic beach resorts and strolling through photogenic Buddhist temples. However, a curfew remains in effect, although it will be shortened Wednesday to midnight to 4 a.m., 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.
The junta has ordered more than 260 people to report to the authorities so far. Among them are scholars, journalists and political activists seen as critical of the regime. Prayuth has said they need time “to calm themselves down.”
It is unclear how many are still in custody, but some have been released, including former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who had already been forced from power by a court ruling before the coup.
Others are being detained daily. Human rights groups describe a chilling atmosphere with some people in hiding, others fleeing, and soldiers visiting the homes of perceived critics and taking them away in the night.
On Tuesday, the military summoned two Thai newspaper journalists who had asked “inappropriate” questions to Prayuth during a news conference a day earlier.
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.”
Aware of rising concern over the detainees, army-run TV Channel 5 on Tuesday night showed videos of some of them, including members of the Red Shirts, a mass organization that supported the ousted government. Red Shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan said he was well and felt that “now everyone knows how each other feels and should do everything not to let the country lose.”
Deputy army spokesman Winthai Suvaree said the images were being released to show that the detainees are being treated well and fairly.
Chaturon earlier called the 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.”
He warned that “from now on there will be more and more resistance. . . . It will be a disaster for this country.”
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.