By Grant Peck And Thanyarat Doksone Associated Press
BANGKOK — Thailand’s ruling military council stiffened its warnings Sunday against protests over its takeover of power, with its patience apparently wearing thin over demonstrations that have been growing in size and boldness.
The warning came a day before the coup leader, Army Commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, was expected to receive the king’s endorsement formalizing his status as head of government.
After that, it’s anticipated Prayuth may 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.
After three days of tense but mostly nonviolent 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 prohibits 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),” Winthai told reporters.
On Sunday, 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 on Sunday, a spot chosen because it was the center 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 Sunday 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 kilometers (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,” 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 people have been officially summoned so far in lists broadcast on radio and TV.
The fate of Yingluck — who surrendered herself 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.
There were reports circulating that Yingluck had been released on Sunday, but her aide said she had been moved but not freed.
“Ms. Yingluck is still under the military’s control, and I have not been informed about her current whereabouts,” Wim Rungwattnachinda said. “She, however, has been out of the army camp that she was held in and she is safe. She has not been freed to go home.”
Army Deputy Spokesman Col. Weerachon Sukondhapatipak said he had no information on whether Yingluck had been freed.
On Saturday, Weerachon said that more than 100 people were in detention, but anti-coup activists noted that there have been arrests of people not on the official lists of those called to report to military officials.
The coup makers have scrambled to defend their actions, which have been sharply criticized abroad, especially in the West. The United States has cut off aid and canceled military exercises with Thailand, and said it was reconsidering its long military relationship with the Southeast 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 paralyzed 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,” 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 Yingluck’s government that killed 28 people and injured more than 800.
The protests were part of a cycle of dueling demonstrations between supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — 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 Thaksin and his supporters in the rural north who backed him because of populist policies such as virtually free health care.
The government deposed Thursday rose to power in a landslide election in 2011 that was deemed fair, and Yingluck served as prime minister until she was forced from office earlier this month by a controversial court ruling for abuse of power, which she denies.
The turbulence has played out against a backdrop of fears about the future of Thailand’s monarchy. Thaksin’s critics have accused him of disrespecting ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej and trying to gain influence with Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the heir to the throne.
The king, who is 86, has been silent on the crisis.