Thailand’s ruling military has summoned the entire ousted government and members of the politically influential family at the heart of the country’s long-running conflict.
The order came a day after the army seized control of the volatile south-east Asian nation in a bloodless coup.
It was unclear why more than 100 people – including the ousted prime minister and several members of the Shinawatra family – were ordered to report to the military, which said it was summoning the high-profile figures “to keep peace and order and solve the country’s problems”.
It was also unclear how many of them would turn up at the designated army compound in Bangkok amid confusion over the military’s intentions.
Yesterday’s coup was launched while the military hosted a meeting of political rivals at the same compound for what was billed as a second round of talks on how to resolve the country’s political deadlock.
After two hours of inconclusive talks, armed soldiers detained the participants, including four cabinet ministers, and the army chief appeared on national television to announce the takeover.
Without firing a shot, the military staged its second coup in eight years, suspending the constitution and the cabinet, banning gatherings of more than five people and embarking on a risky bid to end half a year of political upheaval that many fear will only deepen the nation’s crisis.
For seven months, anti-government protesters have been calling for the removal of the Shinawatra family and its alleged corrupting influence from Thai politics.
Former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was sacked by the Constitutional Court earlier this month for nepotism, was among those summoned, along with acting prime minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan.
In response to rumors that Mr Niwattumrong was being protected at the US embassy compound, American ambassador Kristie Kenney tweeted: “Absolutely false. Do not believe rumours.”
The country’s junta leader, army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, said during his announcement yesterday that he had to act to restore stability and “quickly bring the situation back to normal” amid increasing spasms of violence that together with controversial court rulings had rendered the government powerless and the country profoundly divided.
But troubles for Thailand, a regional economic hub whose idyllic white-sand beaches and elephant-filled jungles draw millions of tourists a year, could be just beginning.
“We’re likely to see dark days ahead,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, referring to the possibility of violent resistance from the ousted government’s supporters.
The army, which imposed martial law in a surprise move on Tuesday that many sensed was a prelude to taking full power, imposed a nationwide curfew yesterday that began at 10pm – a clear sign it was concerned about potential unrest.
But there was no sign of immediate trouble or any reports of overnight violence.
By daybreak, there was hardly any visible military presence on Bangkok’s streets. In the city centre, the few military vehicles that had diverted cars on some major roads overnight were gone.
Traffic was lighter than usual and schools across the country were ordered closed, but life in Bangkok – a bustling metropolis of 10 million people – appeared relatively normal. Like any other morning, street vendors set up their food stalls, commuters headed to work and delivery trucks made their rounds.
The main indication of military presence was on television, where regular programming was replaced by a static screen showing military crests and the junta’s self-declared name, National Peace and Order Maintaining Council. Patriotic music filled airtime, interrupted by occasional announcements from military officials.
US secretary of state John Kerry condemned the takeover and warned it would “have negative implications for the US-Thai relationship”, but did not announce immediate punitive steps. The State Department said it was reviewing millions of dollars in aid.
“There is no justification for this military coup,” Mr Kerry said in a statement that also called for the release of detained political leaders and a return of press freedom.
Yesterday’s dramatic events were the culmination of a societal schism laid bare after the 2006 coup deposed former prime minister and Manchester City owner Thaksin Shinawatra, the older brother of Ms Yingluck and a billionaire tycoon whose populist movement has won every national election since 2001.
Mr Thaksin lives in self-imposed exile to avoid corruption charges, but he still wields enormous influence over Thailand’s political affairs and remains at the heart of the ongoing crisis.
The conflict pits a majority rural poor in the north and north east, who benefited from Mr Thaksin’s populist policies, against an urban-based elite in Bangkok and the south that is concerned it is losing power.
It is a divide that has led to upheaval multiple times in recent years. The latest crisis alone has left 28 people dead and more than 800 wounded since November.
Thailand’s political tensions have played out against a backdrop of fears about the future of its monarchy. Mr Thaksin’s critics have accused him of disrespecting ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej and trying to gain influence with Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the heir to the throne.
Australia has said it is “gravely concerned” about the military coup, which foreign minister Julie Bishop described as a “regrettable development” that was prompting her government to review its relationship with Thailand.
“We need to know the reasons for announcing the coup just days after imposing martial law on the basis that it was not a coup. So we are reviewing the situation, we’re constantly monitoring developments and we are reviewing the implications of the coup on government-to-government relations,” she told Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Ms Bishop said she was concerned for around 28,500 Australians in Thailand and urged them to use a “very high degree of caution”.
“It is a volatile situation – it has been for many months,” she said in Adelaide. “We hope that people stay away from large public gatherings.”
Ms Bishop said restoring a democratically-elected government was key to sustainable political stability in the country.