International
Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

Thailand army carries out coup, takes control of government

Military leaders summon ousted PM to Friday meeting, top general expected to meet king to explain military's actions

Thailand's military leaders summoned ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to a meeting on Friday, a day after army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power in a bloodless coup and said he wanted to restore order following months of turmoil.

Yingluck arrived at  the army facility at noon, shortly after some of her aides, a Reuters witness said. Prayuth, who attended, was expected to meet King Bhumibol Adulyadej later on Friday at the royal palace in Hua Hin, in the south of the country, to explain the army's move.

Leaders of pro- and anti-government protest groups were still believed to be in detention on Friday, said an opposition lawmaker who declined to be identified. The military banned 155 people, including politicians and activists, from leaving the country.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said there had been no justification for the coup, which would have "negative implications" for ties with its ally, especially military ones. He also called for the release of detained politicians.

"The path forward for Thailand must include early elections that reflect the will of the people," Kerry said in a statement. 

There was condemnation from France, the European Union and the United Nations human rights office. Japan called the coup r regrettable, and Australia said it was "gravely concerned." 

Prayuth said in a statement broadcast Thursday on national television that the same military commission that had imposed martial law Tuesday would now take control of the country's administration. Prayuth will head the body, a deputy spokesman said late Thursday. He has also declared himself prime minister.

More than a dozen members of the government and leaders of the country’s rival political factions were reportedly detained in a military safe house in Bangkok after failing to resolve the political impasse in two days of meetings chaired by Prayuth, before his take-over.

The army also announced a nationwide curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. and a suspension of the country's constitution.

"In order for the country to return to normal quickly, the National Peace Keeping Committee comprised of the army, the Thai armed forces, the Royal Air Force and the police need to seize power as of May 22 at 4:30 p.m.,” Prayuth said.

On Wednesday, Prayuth had summoned the country's rival political leaders for face-to-face talks at the Royal Thai Army Club in Bangkok. After the first meeting failed to resolve the impasse, representatives of the country’s government, leaders of the two major rival political parties and the election commissioner were sent home to do “homework” and return with a solution, Voice of America reported.

When they failed to reach an agreement in the second day of meetings Thursday, Prayuth announced the military coup, the Bangkok Post reported.

Shortly before the takeover announcement, armed soldiers in military vehicles surrounded the military facility where the politicians were meeting. As Prayuth left the building, soldiers moved in to detain all the negotiators and took them away in vans, the Bangkok Post reported.

The Senate and Election Commission representatives were later freed, but 18 former members of the caretaker cabinet — in place since the constitutional court ousted Yingluck and nine Cabinet members earlier this month for abuse of power — including the caretaker prime minister, were taken to a safe house at a Bangkok military base, the Bangkok Post said.

Leaders of the pro- and anti-government protester factions were also taken to the military safe house, local news agencies reported. Those detained included co-leaders from the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (“Red Shirts”) and the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (“Yellow Shirts”) — including its head, Suthep Thaugsuban, who has lead anti-government protests over past months, according to the Bangkok Post.

Prayuth intends to keep all of the opposing leaders together until they “learn to love each other,” the Bangkok Post reported.

In the meantime, the army has banned gatherings of more than five protesters, and told anti-government protesters to leave the square in Bangkok where demonstrations have been taking place since November.  

On the outskirts of the capital, where pro-government protesters have been holding demonstrations, soldiers fired shots into the air in an attempt to disperse the thousands of people gathered there. The military detained at least one of the pro-government Red Shirts activists, according to military spokesman Thanawut Wichaidit.

Photos shared on social media showed some protesters boarding buses provided by the military and leaving rally sites in Bangkok.

But a witness told Al Jazeera late Thursday that the Red Shirts were still holding protests on its outskirts. The witness, a foreign national who has lived in Bangkok for 10 years, said that things were relatively peaceful in the city despite the coup.

"It’s not like coups in other countries," he said. "Incidents of violence have been isolated, so you just stay away from certain areas.  We've been through this before." Thailand has a long history of governments changing by military coup.

Another witness in Bangkok said that service on the city’s metro rail lines had been suspended, and that radio stations’ usual programming had been replaced with what sounded like "military music" and a repeating announcement about the coup.

The pivotal developments came after Prayuth declared martial law on Tuesday in what he called a bid to resolve the crisis.

Since then the military has imposed several new "edicts" including one banning media that may incite conflict or unrest, causing at least 14 partisan TV networks — both pro- and anti-government — to shut down.

Nearly 3,000 unlicensed community radio stations across Thailand have also been ordered to close. Newspapers have been warned not to publish articles that could incite unrest. The army says violators will be prosecuted. But so far none have.

A Thai reporter who wished to remain anonymous said that local journalists are divided over the media blackout.

"On one side, they are pro-coup, and they believe this current political crisis can be healed and the military coup is the best way to return peace and keep order in the country," the journalist said. "The curfew is good because the attacks tend to happen at night."

"On the other side, they don't believe the military measures will help — that it will instead take Thailand back to the stone age and military-era, " he said.

Thailand has been gripped by relentless bouts of political instability for more than seven years.

The latest round of unrest started in November, when demonstrators took to the streets to try to force Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step down. They accused her of being a proxy for her popular billionaire brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and now lives in self-imposed exile to avoid a jail sentence on a corruption conviction.

The coup announced Thursday was the 12th since the country's absolute monarchy ended in 1932. The military has been widely viewed as sympathetic to the protesters seeking to oust the current government.

Paul Chambers, a professor at Chiang Mai University’s Institute for South-East Asian Affairs, told the Washington Post that Thailand has experienced nearly 30 coup attempts – some successful, some not – since 1912.

"We ask the public not to panic and to carry on their lives normally," Prayuth said Thursday, after announcing the take-over. "And civil servants, stay in every ministry, carry on your responsibilities as normal."

Al Jazeera and wire services

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter