BANGKOK — 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 took Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang into custody in a chaotic scene at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, where he had just finished giving a surprise news conference.
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.
Chaturon called for elections and warned that resistance to the army overthrow could grow, which could lead to “a disaster for this country.”
When the news conference was finished and Chaturon was being interviewed by a group of Thai journalists, soldiers entered the room, surrounded him, and 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.”
The military takeover, Thailand’s second in eight years, deposed an elected government that had insisted for months that the nation’s fragile democracy was under attack from protesters, the courts, and finally the army.
The country is deeply split between an elite establishment based in Bangkok and the south that cannot win elections, and a poorer majority centered in the north that has begun to realize political and economic power.
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.”
“I still insist to use my own rights and liberty to call for returning the country to democracy,” he said.
Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, 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 which 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 stunning Buddhist temples. A curfew remains in effect, although it will be shortened Wednesday to midnight to 4 a.m., hotel bookings are being canceled, and American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift canceled a sold-out concert that had been scheduled 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 ordered 258 people to report to the authorities so far. 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 before the putsch.
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 “inappropriate” questions to Prayuth 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.”
Chaturon dismissed speculation that members of the ousted government and their allies could form a government-in-exile. But he warned that “from now on there will be more and more resistance. … It will be a disaster for this country.”
He did not elaborate.
The junta has yet to map a way out of the crisis, but Prayuth has said there would be political and administrative reforms. On Monday, he gave the green light for the Finance Ministry to seek billions of dollars in loans to pay debts owed farmers under a disastrous rice scheme instituted by the ousted government.
The junta has given no timetable for restoring civilian rule, and Chaturon said Prayuth “might want to hold onto power for some time.”
Prayuth, he said, has “assigned the generals to take care of the jobs at the ministries – the tasks they know the least.”
Just before soldiers arrived to take Chaturon away, he explained why he had not turned himself in earlier. That would be like a student reporting to a teacher, he said, adding, “I should be the one to educate them.”
Associated Press writers Kay Johnson and Grant Peck contributed to this report.