BANGKOK/WASHINGTON – Thailand’s army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, will begin to govern a polarized country on Friday, a day after he seized power in a bloodless coup in a bid to end six months of turmoil.
Prayuth launched his coup after factions refused to give ground in a struggle for power between the royalist establishment and a populist politician that has raised fears of serious violence and damage to Thailand’s economy, southeast Asia’s second biggest.
Soldiers detained some politicians from both sides when Prayuth announced the coup after talks he was presiding over broke down. The military censored the media, dispersed protesters and imposed a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.
Later, the military summoned ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and 22 associates including powerful relatives and ministers in her government, to a meeting at an army facility at 10 a.m. on Friday.
Yingluck is the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon turned prime minister who won huge support among the poor but the loathing of the royalist establishment, largely over accusations of corruption and nepotism.
Yingluck was forced to step down as prime minister by a court two weeks ago, but her caretaker government, buffeted by six months of protests, remained nominally in power, even after the army declared martial law on Tuesday.
The meeting with Yingluck could set the tone for Prayuth’s rule as he tries to steer the country out of crisis and fend off international criticism of the latest lurch into military rule.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said there was no justification for the coup, which would have “negative implications” for ties, especially military ones.
“The path forward for Thailand must include early elections that reflect the will of the people,” Kerry said in a statement.
He also called for the release of detained politicians.
There was also condemnation from France, the European Union and the United Nations human rights office. Japan said the coup was regrettable and Australia said it was “gravely concerned.”
Prayuth is a member of the royalist establishment who has tried for months to keep the army out of the political strife and to appear even-handed. He had good relations with Yingluck when she was prime minister, but he is regarded warily by some Thaksin supporters.
The army chief, who is 60, took over the powers of prime minister but it is not clear if he intends to stay in the position.
The anti-Thaksin protesters want electoral reforms that would end his success at the ballot box. Thaksin or his parties have won every election since 2001.
The royalists have also been demanding a “neutral” interim prime minister to oversee reforms before any new vote.
Many royalist supporters welcomed the coup against a government they had been trying to force out through protests.
Thaksin’s “red shirt” supporters were dismayed and angry but said there were no immediate plans for protests that they had vowed in response to a coup.
Protests would be a major test for Prayuth, who commands an army known to contain some Thaksin sympathizers.
In 2010, more than 90 people, most of them Thaksin supporters, were killed in clashes, most when the army broke up protests against a pro-establishment government.
Weary investors have generally taken Thailand’s upheavals in stride, and analysts said the impact of the coup on markets might not be too severe.
Thailand’s SET index closed before the coup announcement on Thursday, ending 0.2 percent higher. The baht currency weakened to 32.54 per dollar after the coup announcement, from 32.38 earlier.
Thai gross domestic product contracted 2.1 percent in the first quarter of 2014 from the previous three months, largely because of the unrest, which has frightened off tourists and dented confidence, adding to fears of recession.
The military takeover drew swift international condemnation on Thursday, with the United States saying it was reviewing its military aid and other dealings with its closest ally in Southeast Asia.
“There is no justification for this military coup,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a blunt statement.
“This act will have negative implications for the U.S.-Thai relationship, especially for our relationship with the Thai military. We are reviewing our military and other assistance and engagements, consistent with U.S. law.”
European and Asian nations expressed concern over the coup, with Germany, France and Britain issuing statements of condemnation, Japan’s foreign minister calling it “regrettable” and Singapore urging all sides to avoid violence.
Kerry said he was concerned by reports that senior political leaders had been detained and called for their release. He urged the “immediate” restoration of civilian government and the lifting of curbs on the media.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “seriously concerned” and appealed “for a prompt return to constitutional, civilian, democratic rule and an all-inclusive dialogue that will pave the way for long-term peace and prosperity.”
Under U.S. law, with limited exceptions, no U.S. foreign aid may flow to “any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’etat or decree.”
The Pentagon said it was reviewing its military cooperation, including an ongoing joint exercise in Thailand involving some 700 U.S. Marines and sailors.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that as much as about $10 million in annual bilateral aid could be cut.
For the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, the White House has asked Congress to give Thailand $5 million in development aid, $1.9 million for anti-drug and law enforcement programs, $2.1 million for military training and $900,000 for arms sales.
Only funds going to the government would be affected, not those for nongovernmental groups and democracy promotion.
After the last Thai coup in 2006, Washington suspended about $24 million in aid, which included funds for military training and peacekeeping. It also cut off military sales.
The political unrest in Thailand is an unwanted headache for Washington at a time of rising tensions in the region due to territorial disputes involving an increasingly assertive China.
Singapore, Thailand’s partner in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, called for all sides in Thailand to “avoid violence and bloodshed.”
“Thailand is an important regional country and a key member of ASEAN. Prolonged uncertainties will set back Thailand and the region as a whole,” a spokesman for its foreign ministry said.
Despite the strong words, outsiders’ ability to influence events could be limited given Thailand’s political polarization.
Ernie Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank said the United States would have to impose sanctions, which would upset the Thai military. At the same time it was also likely to be criticized by the ousted Thai government and its supporters for not being tough enough.
While the amount of U.S. aid is not large, making sanctions largely symbolic, cutting support to the Thai military would also play into the hands of China, which has been wooing the Thais with officer training programs and other support.
“It matters, because China has been investing an incredible amount of energy in Thailand,” Bower said. “You could lose an alliance and if you don’t lose an alliance, you could in effect lose the primacy of a friendship with one of ASEAN’s anchor countries.”
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