Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

Thai troops detain ex-government minister who criticized coup

Human rights groups say soldiers also taking perceived critics from their homes during the night

Armed troops detained a Thai Cabinet minister who defiantly emerged from hiding on Tuesday to condemn last week's military coup and urge a return to civilian rule, in the first public appearance by any member of the ousted government.

About half a dozen soldiers burst into a Bangkok journalists' club — where former Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang had just finished giving a surprise news conference —and detained him after he had denounced the coup, saying it could lead to "a disaster for this country." 

A "coup d'etat is not a solution to the problems or conflicts in Thai society, but will make the conflicts even worse," Chaturon said.

Chaturon said he told only a few people in advance of his appearance. He said he would not resist arrest or go underground, but since he does not "accept the coup, I could not report to those who staged it."

The junta, which seized power Thursday, is already holding most top members of the Southeast Asian country's elected administration and has ordered the rest to surrender.

When the news conference was finished and Chaturon was being interviewed by a group of Thai journalists, soldiers entered the room and surrounded him, then escorted him out through a crowd of reporters. He was calm and smiling as he was taken away.

Before being hustled into an elevator, Chaturon said: "I'm not afraid. If I was afraid, I wouldn't be here."

After declaring martial law May 20, the country's army chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, invited political rivals and Cabinet ministers for two days of talks to resolve the crisis. But those talks lasted just four hours. At the end of the meeting, Prayuth ordered everyone inside detained, and announced that the army was seizing power almost immediately afterward.

Prayuth, who was endorsed Monday by the king as the nation's new ruler, warned opponents not to criticize or protest, saying Thailand could revert to the "old days" of turmoil and street violence if they did.

Still, several hundred people gathered Tuesday around Bangkok's Victory Monument to protest the coup.

Despite the political upheaval that has left the nation's elected leadership in tatters, life has continued largely as normal in most of the country, with tourists still relaxing at exotic beach resorts and strolling through Buddhist temples. However, a 10 p.m.-5 a.m. curfew is in place and hotel bookings are being canceled. And on Tuesday, American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift canceled a sold-out concert that had been scheduled for June 9.

"I'm sending my love to the fans in Thailand," Swift tweeted." I'm so sad about the concert being canceled."

The junta has so far ordered 258 people to report to the authorities. Among them are scholars, journalists and political activists seen as critical of the regime. Prayuth has said they need time "to calm themselves down."

It is unclear how many are in custody, but some have been released, including former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who had already been forced from power by a court ruling.

Others are being detained daily. Human rights groups describe a chilling atmosphere with some people in hiding, others fleeing, and soldiers visiting the homes of perceived critics and taking them away in the night.

On Tuesday, the military summoned two Thai newspaper journalists who had asked Prayuth questions deemed "inappropriate" during a news conference a day earlier.

The reporters, from the Thairath and Bangkok Post dailies, had queried the junta leader about when and whether he would appoint a prime minister and organize elections. Prayuth gave no definitive answers, and abruptly walked away from the podium. The reporters were not detained and left freely.

Prayuth "wanted to tell them that right now, he's no longer merely the army chief, he's the leader who runs the country," said Maj. Gen. Ponlapat Wannapak, the secretary to the Royal Thai Army. "To ask him in such an aggressive, pushy manner is not appropriate."

Chaturon called the detentions "absurd" and said "they are taking people who have done nothing wrong just because they might resist the coup."   

"The problem is, we don't know how long they are going to be detained," he said. "We don't know what happened to them. We don't really know."

Wire services 

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