Anti-coup minister detained in Thailand, as military smothers dissent (+video)

The former education minister was detained today after emerging from hiding to urge a return to civilian rule. The military has summoned over 200 journalists, academics, and businessmen.

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    Former Thai Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang, center, walks to a military vehicle after being detained by soldiers following a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand in Bangkok, Thailand Tuesday, May 27, 2014. Thai troops detained the Cabinet minister who defiantly emerged from hiding to condemn last week's military coup and urge a return to civilian rule.
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Thai troops detained a cabinet member from Thailand’s ousted government today after he emerged from hiding to condemn the military coup and call for a return to civilian rule. His detention raises concern that the military government may be taking censorship to a new extreme.

Chaturon Chaisang, the education minister in former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s cabinet, made a surprise speech at the Foreign Press Club in Bangkok and was taking questions when six or so “camouflage-clad troops…encircled him near the club’s bar and ushered him out of the establishment,” reports The Wall Street Journal.

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This was the first public appearance by a member of the ousted government since the military’s coup on May 22, reports The Associated Press. The junta is already holding most of the former administration’s top elected members and has called for all others to surrender. Former Prime Minister Yingluck has reportedly been released, but more than 200 journalists, academics, political activists, and businessmen have been summoned by the military since the coup.

Yesterday, Army Chief Prayuth Chan-Ocha was officially endorsed as the nation’s leader by Thailand’s king, and he vowed to clamp down on anti-coup protests, according to Bloomberg News.

Human rights groups have described the atmosphere as “chilling,” reports the AP. “…[W]ith soldiers visiting the homes of perceived critics and taking them away in the night.” The army says no one has been tortured or beaten, but are being 'asked about what they’ve done…If they are calm and still, they will be released.' ”

The Financial Times says this coup, which was the second in eight years and followed months of tense anti-government protests, is different: "The gloves are off."

The junta has banned gatherings of more than five people, blocked television stations and websites and warned the media not to question its actions. It has detained scores of politicians, activists and others, while those who have since been released have been notable for their silence. Some critics have gone into hiding and others are now nervous about being quoted by name for fear of persecution – attitudes more familiar from President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria than a country with pretensions to being a beacon of democracy in a region not short on autocratic regimes.

"Coup d'état is not a solution to the problems or conflicts in Thai society, but will make the conflicts even worse,” Mr. Chaturon told reporters today. “I would like to stress that a coup d'état is itself an abrogation of democracy, and therefore it cannot possibly create rules that will improve democracy.”

Reuters reports the capital city looked like “business as usual” today, but resident reactions are mixed on what the coup means for the country.

“I don't really have much hope because, in the end, no coups in the past have succeeded in governing the country,” Puttinun Samanawiriya, a food vendor in Bangkok told Reuters.

A young business man, Saranya Phinthurak, was more optimistic, telling the news agency, “[A]t this minute, democracy was not able to move on from what we’ve seen. There’s both the supporting and anti-coup protests. I wish the soldiers, those in power, will step in to help resolve the conflict in Thailand.” 

The former prime minister was forced to step down by the Constitutional Court earlier this month on charges of nepotism, but protests continued. 

Coups in Thailand have become almost commonplace, with 21 successful and attempted coups occurring since 1912, and nine since 1971. “That’s a coup every 4.8 years,” reports The Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy:

However, they have not been as damaging to the prosperity of the nation as one would expect. The nine coups since 1971 may have acted as a drag on economic progress, but the country's gains have still been remarkable. Thai GDP growth has averaged 7.7 percent a year between 1970 and 2012, and key indicators of well-being have also soared. Life expectancy at birth was 62 in 1970. It is now at about 77 years.

To be sure, there are signs that the political impasse of the past seven years is finally taking a toll. GDP contracted 0.6 percent in the first quarter of this year, compared to the same quarter in 2013, and there's little reason for economic optimism in the short term. 

The junta hasn’t yet announced how it will work through the Thai crisis, though the finance ministry has been given the go-ahead to seek out billions of dollars in loans to remedy a failed rice subsidy program run by Yingluck’s government. 

Before being escorted out of the press club, Chaturon dismissed rumors that members from the ousted government would form a government-in-exile, the AP reports. But he warned, “from now on there will be more and more resistance…. It will be a disaster for this country.”

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