Thailand’s coup leader has said the monarchy has officially endorsed him to run the country after the armed forces seized power.
General Prayuth Chan-ocha said he received the endorsement from King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, the world’s longest serving monarch, today formalising his status as head of government at the army headquarters in Bangkok.
Dressed in a white military uniform, Gen Prayuth spoke during his first press conference since last Thursday’s coup. The ceremony came a day after the military junta stepped up warnings to crack down on civilian opposition to its power grab.
It is anticipated Gen Prayuth will now announce plans for reshaping Thailand’s political scene with an interim constitution to replace the one scrapped by the army after Thursday’s coup, and an appointed legislative body.
The army’s plans for reform before elections mirror those of ex-MP Suthep Thaugsuban, who led seven months of demonstrations against the government.
Mr Suthep, who had been detained by the junta since the coup was announced, left a military detention centre and later appeared at the attorney general’s office escorted by police and soldiers. He faces insurrection charges for seizing government ministries and other infractions during his protest bid.
After three days of tense but mostly non-violent confrontations between protesters and security forces, a spokesman for the ruling National Council for Peace and Order warned that officials may need to strictly enforce an army-imposed law that bans people from demonstrating against the coup.
Hinting that the army was ready to cast off restraint, Col Winthai Suvaree said that in case of clashes in which losses or injuries incur, no compensation can be claimed because the country is under martial law.
“I want fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters to warn their families that there is no benefit in coming out to oppose (the coup),” he said.
Yesterday protesters against the coup appeared to number as many as 2,000, growing from a few hundred on Friday.
Publicity-savvy protesters first confronted police and soldiers outside a McDonald’s restaurant, a spot chosen because it was the centre of a failed and bloody two-month anti-government protest in 2010 by many of the same people.
That uprising by the so-called Red Shirts – whose allies took power in elections in 2011 and held it until deposed in last week’s coup – left more than 90 people dead and well over 1,000 injured.
Troops who fanned out across one of central Bangkok’s major shopping districts were met by a crowd of about 1,000 people, who shouted: “Get out, get out, get out!”
Tensions ran high, and at one point a group of soldiers was chased away by the crowds. By late afternoon, the protesters had moved to Victory Monument, a city landmark a few miles away, with their numbers swelling to around 2,000. Rows of soldiers were gathered, but did not try to break up the rally, which ended peacefully.
The army faces a dilemma in engaging the protesters: whether to try to crush them and risk an even angrier reaction and international opprobrium, or to tolerate them and risk emboldening them.
“Please understand that everyone is carrying out their duties to make the country peaceful,” Col Winthai said. “Thus, we are asking the general public to warn against and try to stop such (protest) acts from those groups of people, in order to provide safety to both the people and the officers and to bring peace to the country.”
The military has sought to limit the protests by detaining figures who might play leadership roles. The junta has defended the detentions of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, most of the deposed government’s cabinet, and dozens of politicians and activists.
It also has ordered dozens of outspoken activists, academics and journalists to report to military authorities. More than 200 – the majority considered opponents of the new regime – have been officially summoned so far in lists broadcast on radio and TV.
The fate of Ms Yingluck – who surrendered herself on Friday – and many others remains unclear. Some detainees have been released, and the military has said it expects to free most after about a week.
The coup makers have scrambled to defend their actions, which have been sharply criticised abroad, especially in the West. The United States has cut off aid and cancelled military exercises with Thailand, and said it was reconsidering its long military relationship with the south-east Asian country.
The junta spokesmen expressed hope that Washington might consider what they called special circumstances, referring to several years of disruptive demonstrations by two bitterly-divided factions that have at times paralysed Thailand and led to violent clashes.
“For international issues, another difference is that democracy in Thailand has resulted in losses, which is definitely different from other countries and which is another detail we will clarify,” Col Winthai said.
“For Thailand, its circumstances are different from others. There is the use of weapons of war. Signs of violence against residents are everywhere. This is out of the ordinary.”
Gen Prayuth has justified the coup by saying the army had to act to avert violence and end half a year of political turmoil triggered by protests against Ms Yingluck’s government that killed 28 people and injured more than 800.
The protests were part of a cycle of duelling demonstrations between supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra – Ms Yingluck’s brother, who himself was ousted in a 2006 military coup – and staunch opponents who have the support of Thailand’s traditional establishment.
The divide plaguing the country today is part of a power struggle between an elite, conservative minority backed by powerful businessmen and staunch royalists that can no longer win elections, and the political machine of Mr Thaksin and his supporters in the rural north who backed him because of populist policies such as virtually free health care.