BANGKOK: Thailand’s army chief seized power in a military coup Thursday, deposing its beleaguered civilian government in a bid to end months of deadly political turmoil but triggering US-led international censure.
The new military junta declared a nationwide curfew from 10 pm to 5 am and ordered demonstrators on both sides of the kingdom’s bitter divide off the streets after nearly seven months of political rallies in the capital. The junta led by army chief General Prayut Chan-O-Cha banned gatherings of more than five people, ordered the ousted cabinet to report to the army and suspended the constitution — except for the section related to the monarchy.
“All Thais must remain calm and government officials must work as normal,” Prayut said in a brief televised addressing announcing the takeover, flanked by four of his top officers. Moments before the coup, there were dramatic scenes at a military-hosted meeting between the kingdom’s political rivals as army trucks blocked exits after the talks failed to reach a deal to end the deadlock.
Witnesses saw leaders of Thailand’s two main political parties and its rival protest movements taken away by the military. It was unclear if they had been formally detained but their whereabouts remained unknown hours later.
The US, EU, France and others expressed deep concern over the developments.
Secretary of State John Kerry said there was “no justification” for the coup and that it would harm US relations.
He urged the restoration of civilian rule, media freedoms and “early elections that reflect the will of the people,” while the Pentagon said it was reviewing military cooperation with its longtime Southeast Asian ally.
It is the latest twist in a nearly decade-long political crisis stretching back to an earlier coup in 2006 that deposed the controversial tycoon-turned-politician Thaksin Shinawatra as premier — a move that infuriated his supporters.
The military is viewed as a staunch defender of the monarchy and traditionally coups have needed the approval of the palace, although it was unclear if that was the case on this occasion. Some observers see the crisis as a struggle to decide who will run the country when the more than six-decade reign of 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej eventually ends.
A Bangkok-based royalist elite and its backers have engaged in several months of escalating confrontation with the democratically elected government aligned to Thaksin, whose sister Yingluck was dismissed as premier earlier this month in a controversial court ruling.
Thaksin lives in exile after a corruption conviction, but he and his allies retain strong support in Thailand, particularly the rural north, and have won every general election since 2001.
Experts at the Siam Intelligence Unit, a Bangkok-based think-tank, expect an interim premier to be appointed within days and a junta government to be in office for one to two years during which time a “draconian” new constitution will be drawn up. “The coup is not a solution at all to end the crisis. This will become the crisis,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Japan’s Kyoto University. “It shows the military has never learned the lesson from 2006,” he said, referring to the cycle of political instability stemming from Thaksin’s overthrow. Protests by the anti-Thaksin movement have rocked Thailand for months. Related violence has left at least 28 dead and hundreds wounded. Caretaker premier Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan was among ministers ordered to report to the army, but an aide said he was “safe” in an undisclosed location. But Chalerm Yubamrung, a former premier and Thaksin loyalist dismissed earlier with Yingluck, was detained by the military, his son Doung Yubamrung said. Thailand’s democratic development has now been interrupted by 19 actual or attempted coups since 1932.
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