BANGKOK — Bolstered by a royal endorsement Monday to run the country after last week’s coup, Thailand’s junta leader warned citizens not to cause trouble, not to criticize, not to protest – or else face a return to the “old days” of street violence.
Dressed in a crisp white military uniform, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha said he had seized power to restore order after seven months of violent confrontations and political turmoil between the now-ousted government and demonstrators who had called repeatedly for the army to intervene.
“I’m not here to argue with anyone. I want to bring everything out in the open and fix it,” Prayuth said in his first news conference since taking power last Thursday.
“Everyone must help me,” he said, before adding: “Do not criticize, do not create new problems. It’s no use.”
In a gruff, 20-minute appearance, Prayuth warned the media and social media users to avoid doing anything that could fan the conflict. He also called on anti-coup protesters who have staged small-scale demonstrations in Bangkok and several other cities for several days to stop.
“Right now there are people coming out to protest. So do you want to go back to the old days? I’m asking the people in the country, if you want it that way, then I will have to enforce the law.”
Earlier Monday, King Bhumibol Adulyadej officially endorsed Prayuth to run the country in a royal command that called for “reconciliation among the people.”
Bhumibol, who is 86 and in fragile health, did not attend the ceremony at the army headquarters in Bangkok. But the monarch’s statement removed any speculation that the palace, which has been silent so far, might withhold its support for the junta.
Thursday’s coup, Thailand’s second in eight years, deposed an elected government that had insisted for months that Thailand’s fragile democracy was under attack from protesters, the courts, and finally the army that had rendered it powerless.
The country is deeply split between an elite establishment based in Bangkok and the south that cannot win elections on one side, and a poorer majority in the north that has begun to realize political and economic power on the other.
Prayuth justified the takeover, saying that “when the conflict intensified, and there was the threat of violence, we had to act.”
“We are not doing this for the soldiers. I’m doing this to protect honor and dignity of all Thais. We cannot step back anymore. We have to stop arguing,” he said. “The most important thing right now is to keep peace and order in the country.”
Since sporadic violence began last November as anti-government protests gathered steam, at least 28 people were killed and more than 800 injured in grenade attacks, gun fights and drive-by shootings.
After declaring martial law May 20, Prayuth invited political rivals and Cabinet ministers for two days of brief peace talks to resolve the crisis. But those talks lasted just four hours. At the end of the meeting, Prayuth ordered everyone inside detained. Half an hour later, he appeared on state television declaring the coup.
The junta is now holding more than 200 people in custody, including most members of the ousted government. The rest include scholars, journalists and political activists seen as critical of the regime. Other activists have fled or are in hiding.
The fate of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who surrendered 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.
Prayuth said they had all been summoned to give them time “to calm themselves down” and none were being tortured or beaten.
“When summoned, they will be asked about what they’ve done …. If they are calm and still, they will be released, in three days, five days, seven days,” Prayuth said.
On Monday, the army released ex-lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban, the man who led half a year of demonstrations against the deposed government. Suthep was escorted to the criminal court by security officers and formally charged for alleged involvement in the deaths of anti-government protesters in a 2010 military crackdown when he was serving as deputy prime minister.
The junta has yet to map a way out of the crisis. But Prayuth said there would be political and administrative reforms.
After the speech, the general took only two questions from reporters – about plans for a new administration.
Asked if he would appoint a new prime minister, Prayuth replied gruffly: “Don’t ask about something that hasn’t arrived. It’s already in the plans. Take it easy. There will be one.”
Asked when elections would be held, Prayuth said that could happen when the crisis ends. It “depends on the circumstances,” he said. “I don’t have a schedule … quickly as possible. That’s enough.”
Associated Press writer Kay Johnson contributed to this report.