Sunday 17 December 2017

Critical Thai minister detained

A Thai soldier gestures as he and his colleagues guard the Victory Monument during an anti-coup demonstration in Bangkok, Thailand (AP Photo/Wason Wanichakorn)
A Thai soldier gestures as he and his colleagues guard the Victory Monument during an anti-coup demonstration in Bangkok, Thailand (AP Photo/Wason Wanichakorn)

Armed troops have detained a Thai cabinet minister who emerged from hiding 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 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 on Thursday, is holding most senior members of the elected administration and has ordered the rest to surrender.

Mr Chaturon called for elections and warned that resistance to the army overthrow could grow, which could lead to "a disaster for this country".

When the news conference was finished and Mr 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 smiling as he was taken away.

Before being hustled into a lift, Mr Chaturon said: "I'm not afraid. If I was afraid, I wouldn't be here."

The military 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 country is deeply split between an elite establishment based in Bangkok and the south that cannot win elections, and a poorer majority centred in the north that has begun to realise 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", Mr Chaturon said.

He said he told only a few people in advance of his appearance, and he would not resist arrest or go underground, but since he did not "accept the coup, I could not report to those who staged it".

"I still insist to use my own rights and liberty to call for returning the country to democracy," he said.

After declaring martial law on May 20, the country's army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, invited political rivals and cabinet ministers for two days of peace talks to resolve the crisis. But the talks lasted just four hours and Gen Prayuth ordered everyone inside detained, and announced the army was seizing power almost immediately afterwards.

Gen Prayuth, who was endorsed yesterday by the king as the nation's new ruler, warned opponents not to criticise or protest, saying Thailand could revert to the "old days" of turmoil and street violence if they did.

Still, several hundred people gathered today around Bangkok's Victory Monument to protest against the coup.

Despite the political upheaval, life has continued largely as normal in most of the country, with tourists still relaxing at exotic beach resorts and strolling through Buddhist temples. However, a 10pm-5am curfew is in place, hotel bookings are being cancelled, and US singer-songwriter Taylor Swift cancelled a sold-out concert scheduled for June 9.

The junta has ordered 258 people to report to the authorities so far. Among them are scholars, journalists and political activists seen as critical of the regime. Gen Prayuth has said they need time "to calm themselves down".

It is unclear how many are 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.

Today, the military summoned two Thai newspaper journalists who had asked "inappropriate" questions to Gen Prayuth during a news conference yesterday.

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 organise elections. Gen Prayuth gave no definitive answers, and abruptly walked away from the podium. The reporters were not initially detained and left freely.

Mr Chaturon 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 dismissed speculation that members of the ousted government and their allies could form a government-in-exile, but he warned that "from now on there will be more and more resistance. It will be a disaster for this country."

Press Association

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