BANGKOK – The king of Thailand is expected to endorse the leader of the military coup that placed the army in control of the nation, it emerged on Sunday, amid growing protests against the military takeover and widespread detention of activists and academics.
News of the king’s move, delivered through local media, came the same day that the junta dissolved the country’s last remaining democratic institution – the senate – and ordered dozens of activists and journalists to turn themselves in to the army.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, who is ailing and frail, is not expected to attend the a royal ceremony on Monday morning at the Royal Thai Army headquarters in Bangkok. But his endorsement will give legitimacy to the junta’s new government and allow its leader – army chief and acting prime minister Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha – to establish an interim constitution and legislative and reform committees.
Under the name of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the junta has brought sweeping changes in a matter of days. On Thursday, it dissolved the lower house of parliament and suspended the constitution – one Gen Prayuth had previously helped draw up during the last military coup in 2006. By emptying out both the house and senate, junta can bypass the need for parliamentary approval of new laws.
By late on Saturday the junta had also announced it had dissolved the senate and would be assuming control of all lawmaking powers. Several hours earlier, it had summoned 35 prominent academics and activists to report to army headquarters in addition to some 155 leading politicians and leaders it had already called in for questioning.
The council has also sacked the police chief and head of the Department of Special Investigations – Thailand’s FBI. On Sunday afternoon it called in the editors of 18 major Thai newspapers – among them Khaosod, the Bangkok Post, ASTV, Matichon and Thairath – according to the online news portal Prachatai. It was not clear if the editors would be allowed to leave or detained in unknown locations like those arrested earlier.
In a separate summons, the outspoken columnist Pravit Rojanaphruk, who writes for English-language paper the Nation, was asked to meet independently with the junta and said on Sunday morning he was en route to army headquarters. “On my way to see the new dictator of Thailand. Hopefully the last,” he tweeted. He did not appear to have been released by Sunday evening.
More than 100 people remain in military detention in secret locations in what has been seen as a push to suppress dissent and potential opposition to the military takeover. Those who refuse to answer the army’s summons are under threat of being court martialled, facing a two-year prison sentence and a fine. “What is scary now is that the army appears to be the most united institution in Thai society,” said Paul Chambers of the institute of south-east Asian affairs, which is affiliated to Chiang Mai University.
Former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, had been taken into custody on Thursday but was released on Saturday.
A military source from the junta told CNN that Shinawatra had been asked to “help us maintain peace and order and not to get involved with protesters or any political movement.” Thailand’s army said it seized power to restore peace and order after six months of political infighting left 28 people dead and more than 700 injured after anti-government protesters, calling for reforms, attempted to overthrow the Shinawatra-led government.
The Shinawatra clan is a polarising family in Thailand. Its billionaire leader, Thaksin, a former premier deposed in 2006, now lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai. His supporters have fought bloodily with his critics for eight years and some observers say that the current military detentions could be seen as an attempt to “purge” the nation of any Shinawatra influence. But the coup leaders are also facing trouble in southern Thailand, where at least 10 bombs exploded on Saturday, reportedly killing three people and wounding 63. An Islamic insurgency has been under way in the south for a decade.
Troops were deployed across central Bangkok on Sunday, concentrated around the shopping malls of Rajprasong, and later Victory Monument, to dispel a growing crowd of protesters defying a public ban on anti-coup gatherings. The crowd shouted at the soldiers, held up banners and called for elections and a return to democratic rule.
Similar “pop-up” protests have taken place in the northern city of Chiang Mai, a political stronghold for the now-deposed Pheu Thai party, as well as in the beach resort of Pattaya and at Khon Kaen in the north-east. But they are matched, at least in Bangkok, with “pro-coup” protesters who claim to support the junta and meet under the banner name of “We love the army”.
Many of the activists and academics told to report to the junta appear to have been outwardly critical of Thailand’s lèse-majesté law – known as Article 112 – which calls for up to 15 years’ imprisonment for defamatory, insulting or threatening comments about the royal family. Critics claim it stifles public debate and helps to maintain the status quo.
The junta has also said that all lèse-majesté and sedition cases will now be tried in army courts. Recent attempts to reform the law have met fervent resistance by royalists, among them Prayuth, who according to the Associated Press told critics: “If you guys play hardball I’ll have no choice but to do so too.”
A 10pm-5am curfew still stands across the nation and about 14 Thai TV channels and radio stations are still off-air. Some websites have been shut down and some international channels, like BBC and CNN, are still inaccessible on certain providers.
Chambers said the speed at which the junta was instituting change was “very worrisome” and that the immediate future for Thailand looked bleak. “I see more jailings. I see the enshrinement of more army power. I see the beginning of civil war after Thaksin announces a government in exile,” he said. Thaksin’s lawyer, Robert Amsterdam, told Australia’s ABC that the new government may be hosted in Cambodia.