BANGKOK – Thailand’s junta said on Friday that it had captured a fugitive anti-coup leader facing possible imprisonment, as the ruling generals seek to stamp out any criticism of their seizure of power.
Sombat Boonngamanong, who spearheaded an online campaign to stage illegal flashmob rallies against the military takeover, was arrested late Thursday in Chonburi southeast of Bangkok, army spokeswoman Sirichan Ngathong said.
“We have a team who tracked him through the Internet,” she told AFP.
Sombat faces charges of defying an order to report to the junta, which carries a possible punishment of two years in prison.
He is expected to be detained at an army facility for up to one week for questioning and then brought before a military court.
Sombat was one of several hundred politicians, activists, academics and journalists summoned by the junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), following the May 22 coup.
Those who attended were detained in secret locations for up to a week and ordered to cease political activities.
Sombat, a prominent pro-democracy activist, refused to turn himself in, instead posting a message on Facebook saying: “Catch me if you can”.
Since then he has urged followers to stage peaceful public demonstrations, flashing the three-finger salute from “The Hunger Games” films that has become a symbol of defiance against the junta.
Sombat is the leader of a faction of the “Red Shirts” movement, which broadly supports fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, who was deposed as prime minister last month.
His supporters reacted to news of his arrest with dismay.
“What has he done wrong? Did he kill anybody?” one follower wrote on his Facebook page.
A former minister in Yingluck’s ousted cabinet who also refused to answer the summons appeared in a military court on Friday.
Ex-education minister Chaturon Chaisang was detained by soldiers in a dramatic swoop on a press conference late last month, minutes after criticising the coup.
He was initially ordered on Friday to remain in military custody for another 12 days, but later released on bail. If convicted, he could be imprisoned.
“He shouldn’t be put in jail just because he has different views to the junta,” his sister Titima Chaisang told AFP.
Yingluck was herself summoned and held temporarily at an undisclosed location after the coup.
The junta says she has since been released and allowed to return home although she remains under military supervision.
Yingluck had faced nearly seven months of mass opposition protests leading up to the coup. Shootings and grenade attacks linked to the rallies left 28 people dead and hundreds wounded, including many opposition demonstrators.
The junta has imposed martial law, media censorship and a night-time curfew as part of what it says is an attempt to end years of political turmoil and “return happiness” to the people.
Critics see the coup as a pretext for a long-planned power grab by the military-backed royalist establishment to purge politics of the influence of Thaksin, who was himself ousted by the army in 2006.
The billionaire tycoon-turned-populist politician lives in Dubai to avoid jail for a corruption conviction.
Thaksin or his allies have won every election in more than a decade. The junta has said new polls are not expected for at least a year.
The turmoil has scared off tourists, with foreign visitor numbers slumping 10.6 percent in May compared with a year earlier, to roughly 1.74 million people, official figures showed Friday.
The coup makers said they were planning to scrap the midnight-4 am curfew soon in four more tourist destinations — Hua Hin, Cha-Am, Hat Yai and Krabi, and lift the measure for the rest of the country as soon as possible.
On Tuesday, they lifted it in the beach resorts of Pattaya, Koh Samui and Phuket.