Thai military tightens grip, focuses on economic woes

Posted May 25, 2014, at 6:58 a.m.

BANGKOK — Thailand’s military tightened its grip on power on Sunday as it moved to douse smoldering protests fueled by social media and rally commercial agencies and business to revitalize the country’s battered economy.

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, old money families 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 has detained leaders of the ousted government including Yingluck and an unknown number of her ministers, party officials, and supporters.

It has thrown out the constitution, censored the media and on Saturday it dismissed the upper house Senate, Thailand’s last functioning legislature, in what amounts to a clean sweep of the political landscape.

Power now lies squarely in the hands of army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha and his junta known as the National Council for Peace and Order, and their priorities appeared to be stamping out dissent and tending to the economy.

“We would like to ask all people to avoid gathering to stage protests because it’s not a usual situation for the democratic process,” deputy army spokesman Winthai Suvaree said in a televised statement.

“For those who use social media to provoke, please stop because it’s not good for anyone. For media, they should be careful about speaking, criticizing or doing anything that causes damage to any party, especially civilian, police and military officials.”

A small number of protesters gathered again in Bangkok on Sunday, outside a central shopping center. There were more soldiers than protesters in the area and when someone started shouting, soldiers dragged two people away, a Reuters reporter said.

One man taken away was wearing a red shirt, the color of Thaksin’s loyalists.

“Thailand very bad, very bad,” shouted a woman in English. “They don’t like red shirts and so they beat him and took him away.”

The military began meetings on Sunday with the leaders of state and private commercial organizations, senior officials of the commerce, finance ministries and business leaders. Officials from the energy ministry, oil trade and transport companies were due to meet later.

The army has also asked 18 newspaper bosses to a meeting on Sunday, presumably to receive directions on supportive coverage.

“From now on, the army will focus on solving the country’s problems,” a senior military official said on Saturday.

“The army would like to be in power for the shortest period they can. They want to make sure the country is really getting back to normal without any resistance,” said the official, who declined to be identified.

Less than 72 hours after the coup, the military has already met political, media, academic and civil service groups. Many of the politicians have been detained while others such as civil servants have been exhorted to work for the country.

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 p.m to 5 a.m. curfew. That has not deterred some critics.

Soldiers massed on Sunday at a shopping mall in Bangkok where protesters planned to gather later, a Reuters witness said.

About 200 people marched in Bangkok on Saturday, many with handwritten signs such as “Anti the Coup” and “Get out Dictators.” There was some scuffles with police and several people were detained but no serious violence.

Such small protests appear spontaneous and leaderless but the real danger for the military would be a sustained mass campaign by Thaksin’s “red shirt” loyalists.

Protesters said they were organizing on social media and were keeping gatherings small in the hope that they would avoid provoking a military response from the army.

“We’re going to do this every day and have 100 to 200 people at different places,” said one man who declined to be identified. “We want the world and society to know that we’re against this army and we want democracy.”

About 200 people also gathered on Saturday in the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thaksin’s hometown, and soldiers detained at least six people, a Reuters reporter said.

At a meeting in Chiang Mai on Saturday, the army ordered police and officials to squash anti-army dissent or face transfer. The call reflects the army’s unease about control of the north and northeast, hotbeds of support for the Shinawatras.

Six months of anti-government protests that finally led to the coup, the latest outbreak of a nearly decade-long clash between the establishment and Thaksin, have hurt Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy. In the first quarter of the year, the economy shrank 2.1 percent and there is little prospect of improvement.

Thais are not spending, and consumer sentiment fell to a 12-year low in the months before the coup. Many countries have issued travel warnings for Thailand, which was already expecting the lowest number of foreign visitors in five years in 2014. Tourism accounts for about 10 percent of the economy.

In what appeared to be a quick move to win over some of Thaksin’s core supporters, Prayuth said paying farmers money owed under a failed subsidy scheme organized by Yingluck’s government was a priority.

The United States swiftly condemned the coup and State Department has suspended about $3.5 million in military aid, including a portion for training. The Pentagon said it was canceling various training exercises and visits by commanders.

 

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