BANGKOK – Thailand’s new military junta aired videos Wednesday on television stations nationwide showing some of the prominent political figures it has detained as part of an effort to convince the public that detainees in army custody are being treated well.
The footage showed five detainees speaking to army officers at an undisclosed location. The most prominent among them was Jatuporn Prompan, the leader of the “Red Shirt” movement that had vowed to take action if the military seized power.
The army, which still holds in custody several senior officials in the government it overthrew, has summoned 253 people, mostly politicians, scholars, journalists and activists seen as critical of the regime. Seventy-six were still in custody, 124 have been released and 53 have failed to show up, a spokesman for the junta, Col. Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, told a news conference Wednesday afternoon.
Jatuporn was seized May 22 when the coup unfolded after the army called the country’s political rivals together for peace talks. He was seen in the video wearing a clean white T-shirt while talking to an army officer. He seemed fatigued but at ease.
“Right now it’s good,” he said, chuckling. “I’ve been treated well.”
Jatuporn, however, is unable to speak freely, and the military has confiscated all cellphones of those in custody.
“Now everyone knows how each other feels and that they do not want the country and everything to be damaged any further,” he said, sitting at a small table with three small bottles of water and a plate of bananas and apples.
In a tropical country known for its heat and humidity, there appeared to be no air conditioning in the room; a single fan turned back and forth.
“I never asked where this location is,” Jatuporn said, laughing again. “Nobody knows where it is.”
The army 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.
At the center of Thailand’s deep political divide is Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister supported by many rural Thais for his populist programs but despised by others — particularly Bangkok’s elite and middle classes — over allegations of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for the monarchy.
He was ousted in 2006 and lives abroad to avoid serving prison time for a corruption conviction, but held great influence over the overthrown government, which had been led by his sister until a court ousted her this month.
Deputy army Col. Nattawut Chancharoen said the detainee videos were released “due to criticism and concern from everyone” regarding those in custody.
He said nobody would be held more than seven days, and nobody was being beaten or tortured. “Once there’s confidence that the situation is under control, we will … release them,” he said.
Before being freed, detainees had to sign release forms agreeing not to do anything “provocative or anything that has a negative impact on national security,” Weerachon told reporters Wednesday at the junta’s daily news conference. Anyone who supports political activities or violates the other conditions can be prosecuted and will have their financial transactions frozen.
The video clips, first aired during a talk show on an army channel late Tuesday and later ordered broadcast on all stations, showed three Red Shirt leaders, ex-deputy Prime Minister Pracha Pomnonk, and one former lawmaker from the Democrat Party who had publicly criticized the coup.
Despite the political upheaval that has left the nation’s elected leadership in tatters, life has continued largely as normal in most of the country, with tourists still relaxing at beach resorts and strolling through Buddhist temples in Bangkok and elsewhere.
However, dozens of foreign governments have issued travel warnings and hotel bookings are being cancelled. American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift on Tuesday cancelled a sold-out concert that had been scheduled on June 9.
A curfew remains in effect, although it will be shortened Wednesday to midnight to 4 a.m., from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. earlier. The curfew has not impacted critical travel, including that of tourists arriving at airports.
The junta, though, has made clear it will not tolerate dissent.
After the king endorsed army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha on Monday as the nation’s new head of government, Prayuth warned potential opponents not to criticize or protest, saying Thailand could revert to the “old days” of turmoil and street violence if they did.
The next day, two Thai newspaper journalists who had asked “inappropriate” questions during the event were summoned by the army. 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 organize elections.
Prayuth gave no definitive answers, and abruptly ended the press conference. The reporters were not detained and left freely, but Prayuth “wanted to tell them that right now, he’s no longer merely the army chief, he’s the leader who runs the country,” said Maj. Gen. Ponlapat Wannapak, the secretary to the Royal Thai Army. “To ask him in such an aggressive, pushy manner is not appropriate.”
Troops seized ousted Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang on Tuesday at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, where he had just finished giving a news conference to condemn the military takeover and call for a restoration of democratic rule.
The minister’s appearance was the first in public by any member of the ousted government.
Before being taken away, Chaturon called the army detentions “absurd” and said “they are taking people who have done nothing wrong just because they might resist the coup.”
Also Tuesday, the junta established an advisory board with military and civilian members. It is headed by former Defence Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, who was seen as a major behind-the-scenes player in efforts to oust the civilian government, and is a possible interim prime minister.