BANGKOK – Thailand’s ruling junta has found a new way of controlling its opponents and forcing them into silence: releasing them from custody only on condition they promise not to do anything “provocative.”
Those who do face two years in jail.
The restrictions were confirmed Wednesday by both the army and detainees it has held incommunicado for a week, who said they were freed only after signing a form agreeing not to say or do anything that could stir conflict.
Also Wednesday, the junta said that a sudden interruption of access to Facebook was not part of a censorship policy but due instead to a technical glitch. Earlier in the day, however, the Information Technology Ministry said it had blocked Facebook at the request of the military to stem protests.
The site was back up after about 30 minutes and the military denied involvement, saying a technical problem was to blame. The afternoon blockage did not affect all users but drew a flurry of attention online. It lasted for at least an hour and came just a day after the new military government announced an Internet crackdown.
The junta has banned dissemination of information that could cause unrest, effectively banning criticism of last week’s coup.
Prodemocracy demonstrators have taken to Bangkok’s streets daily since the coup in generally small and mostly leaderless protests. Hundreds gathered Wednesday at the city’s Victory Monument, where scuffles broke out in which water bottles and other objects were hurled at soldiers, and a green army Humvee was vandalized with large white letters reading, “NO COUP. GET OUT.”
The army, which is still holding top officials in the ousted government, has summoned 253 people, mostly politicians, scholars, journalists and activists seen as critical of the regime. Roughly 70 are still in custody, 53 have failed to show up, and about 130 have been released, said a spokesman for the junta, Col. Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak.
Among those freed Wednesday were five leaders of the Red Shirt movement, which supported the government ousted in the coup and had threatened to take action if the military seized power.
The Red Shirts staged a major protest in Bangkok in 2010, occupying a huge swath of downtown for two months before troops dispersed them in a bloody crackdown that left the city in flames. The protesters were blamed for setting dozens of buildings and one of the capital’s most luxurious shopping malls ablaze as they retreated.
The conditional releases could pose a challenge to the Red Shirt leadership and appear aimed at stifling a new round of mass protests. The signed forms also explain why those who have been released, such as former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, have made no public statements since.
The only ousted government official to condemn the coup, the education minister, was detained immediately after he did so at a news conference Tuesday and military authorities said Wednesday he will be charged with failing to respond to a summons to report to the army.
The most prominent of those released Wednesday was Jatuporn Prompan, who was seized last Thursday when the coup unfolded after the army called the country’s political rivals together for unsuccessful peace talks.
Jatuporn was featured in an army video ordered broadcast on all stations earlier Wednesday. The junta said the video, in which five detainees can be seen talking to army officers, was meant to prove to the public that detainees are being treated well.
Three of those in the clips were freed Wednesday. Two were not: ex-Deputy Prime Minister Pracha Pomnonk and a former lawmaker from the Democrat Party who had publicly criticized the coup.
Kokaew Pikulthong, a Red Shirt leader who was among those released, later said that “We were treated OK. It was not fancy, but it was a livable condition.”
He said he had no idea where they were because they were blindfolded while they were taken there and back. “Like everyone, we had to sign the release form saying we will not engage in any activities that could incite division or violence in the country,” Kokaew said.
Weerachon confirmed the conditions of release, saying the detainees had to sign forms saying they would not to do anything “provocative or anything that has a negative impact on national security.” Anyone who supports political activities or violates the other conditions can be prosecuted, he said.
Meanwhile, the junta has appointed two retired generals with palace connections as advisers, putting powerful establishment figures hostile toward former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra firmly in the ascendant in the country’s long-running power struggle.
The junta’s team of advisers includes a former defense minister, General Prawit Wongsuwan, and former army chief General Anupong Paochinda.
The two men are towering figures in Thailand’s military establishment and have close ties to coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha. All three are staunch monarchists and helped oust Thaksin, who remains at the heart of the political crisis, in a 2006 coup.
In December a news report said Prawit and Anupong had secretly backed the anti-government protests that undermined the government of Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck. She was removed by a court on May 7 for abuse of power and the coup ousted remaining ministers two weeks later.
It is not clear what powers the advisers will have, but their appointment would suggest little prospect of compromise with the Shinawatras.
The army takeover, 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 army said it acted to restore order after seven months of protests that triggered sporadic violence in which at least 28 people were killed and more than 800 injured in grenade attacks, gun fights and drive-by shootings.
At the center of Thailand’s deep political divide is Thaksin, a former prime minister supported by many rural Thais for his populist programs but despised by others — particularly Bangkok’s elite and middle classes — over allegations of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for the monarchy. He was ousted in 2006 and lives abroad, but held great influence over the overthrown government, which had been led by his sister until a court ousted her this month.
Despite the latest political upheaval, life has continued largely as normal in most of the country, with tourists still relaxing at beach resorts and strolling through Buddhist temples.
A curfew remains in effect, although it was shortened Wednesday to midnight to 4 a.m., from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. earlier. The curfew has not affected critical travel, including that of tourists arriving at airports.