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Thai military tightens grip

Thailand’s military tightened its grip on power on Sunday as it moved to douse smouldering protests fuelled by social media and to rally commercial agencies and business to revitalise a battered economy.

The military overthrew the government on Thursday after months of debilitating and at times violent confrontation between the populist government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the royalist establishment.

Critics say the coup will not end the conflict between the rival power networks: The Bangkok-based elite dominated by the military, old money families and the bureaucracy, and an upstart clique led by Yingluck’s brother and former telecommunication mogul Thaksin Shinawatra.

The Shinawatras draw much of their influence from the provinces.

The military has detained leaders of the ousted government including Yingluck and an unknown number of her ministers, party officials, and supporters. Leaders of six months of anti-government protests against Yingluck have also been held.

The military has thrown out the constitution, censored the media and on Saturday dismissed the upper house Senate, Thailand’s last functioning legislature, in what amounts to a clean sweep of the political landscape.

Power now lies squarely in the hands of army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha and his junta known as the National Council for Peace and Order, and their priorities appeared to be stamping out dissent and tending to the economy.

“We would like to ask all people to avoid gathering to stage protests because it’s not a usual situation for the democratic process,” deputy army spokesman Winthai Suvaree said in a televised statement.

“For those who use social media to provoke, please stop because it’s not good for anyone. For media, they should be careful about speaking, criticising or doing anything that causes damage to any party, especially civilian, police and military officials.”

Several hundred protesters gathered in Bangkok on Sunday outside a central shopping centre, many of them with handwritten signs such as “Anti the Coup” and “Get out Dictators”. They also unfurled a large black banner with the words “Stop the Coup”, a Reuters reporter said.

Hundreds of soldiers, most with riot shields, lined up to contain the crowd and soldiers dragged two people away, one of them wearing a red shirt, the colour of Thaksin’s loyalists.

“Thailand very bad, very bad,” one woman shouted in English.

“They don’t like red shirts and so they beat him and took him away.”

The military began meetings on Sunday with the leaders of state and private commercial organizations, senior officials of the commerce, finance ministries and business leaders. Officials from the energy ministry, oil trade and transport companies were due to meet later.

The army has also asked 18 newspaper bosses to a meeting on Sunday, presumably to receive directions on supportive coverage.

“From now on, the army will focus on solving the country’s problems,” a senior military official said on Saturday.

“The army would like to be in power for the shortest period they can. They want to make sure the country is really getting back to normal without any resistance,” said the official.

Less than 72 hours after the coup, the military has already met political, media, academic and civil service groups. Many of the politicians have been detained while others such as civil servants have been exhorted to work for the country.

Protests
The military, which has launched 19 successful or attempted coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, has banned gatherings of more than five people and imposed a 10 pm to 5 am curfew. That has not deterred some critics.

Since Friday, small protests have also flared in the northern city of Chiang Mai. Students and others had also tried to hold protests in the northeastern town of Khon Kaen, a blogger said. Thailand’s north and northeast are Thaksin’s main strongholds.

Some protesters in Bangkok said they were organising on social media and were keeping gatherings small in the hope that they would avoid provoking a response from the army.

Such small protests appear almost spontaneous and leaderless but the real danger for the military would be a sustained mass campaign by Thaksin’s “red shirt” loyalists.

At a meeting in Chiang Mai on Saturday, the army ordered police and officials to squash anti-army dissent or face transfer.

The latest spasm of turmoil in the nearly decade-long clash between the establishment and Thaksin has hurt Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy. In the first quarter of the year, the economy shrank 2.1 per cent and there is little prospect of improvement.

Thais are not spending, and consumer sentiment fell to a 12-year low in the months before the coup. Many countries have issued travel warnings for Thailand, which was already expecting the lowest number of foreign visitors in five years in 2014. Tourism accounts for about 10 per cent of the economy.

In what appeared to be a quick move to win over some of Thaksin’s core supporters, Prayuth said paying farmers money owed under a failed subsidy scheme organized by Yingluck’s government was a priority.

The United States swiftly condemned the coup and State Department has suspended about $ 3.5 million in military aid, including a portion for training. The Pentagon said it was cancelling various training exercises and visits by commanders.

The fight between Thaksin and his enemies has polarized the country and split friends and families. The coup is unlikely to change that.

Detained members of the rival camps were initially asked to mingle at an army base where they are being held but quickly demanded separate quarters, the Bangkok Post reported.

“(Prayuth’s) attempts to bring political rivals together ‘to love and be at peace’ are not going as planned,” the paper said.

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