BANGKOK — Thailand’s new military leader said Monday that the junta would hold power “indefinitely,” and warned citizens not to instigate chaos or criticize his rule.
“It’s no use,” Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha said in a testy news conference that ended with him departing the stage mid-question.
Four days after his military seized power in a bloodless coup, Prayuth received his most important mark of legitimacy, an endorsement from Thailand’s beloved but ailing 86-year-old king.
No member of the opaque monarchy has spoken publicly about the coup, and King Bhumibol Adulyadej did not appear at Monday’s ceremony. Still, the stamp of approval carries broad implications in a country where the king has ruled for nearly seven decades and where second-guessing his decisions amounts to treason.
Prayuth has proved both repressive and swift, suspending the constitution, eliminating the Senate, installing a curfew and detaining more than 200 political leaders, academics and journalists. The moves have drawn criticism from foreign governments and further subverted what was a weak democracy.
Prayuth said he intended to rebuild a democratic system, but the timetable would “depend on the situation.” He added the military has “full control” over the government.
Asked when elections might take place, he said, “It depends on the situation.” He then abruptly ended the news conference.
Prayuth grabbed power at a delicate time, with the country politically divided and many people fearful of escalating violence. A majority in Thailand’s north supports the ousted government, which had been led for most of the past three years by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Her older brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai but still acts as the patriarch for Thailand’s largest political party.
There’s only one figure in Thailand who trumps Thaksin: the king. Though he’s rarely seen in public, The king has the status of a semi-deity, his gold-framed picture placed in front of buildings and in restaurants, his good deeds taking the form of tall tales.
Since the coup, there have been daily protests of several hundred — a violation of martial law, which prohibits gatherings of more than five. Prayuth issued a harsh warning Monday, saying the military would use force if necessary. Hours later, as protesters gathered at Victory Monument — a landmark in downtown Bangkok — there were no clashes, but troops with loudspeakers berated citizens. Within two hours, the protesters went home.
“The danger is if somebody wants to be the provocateur, you could have a chain reaction,” said Gothom Arya, a lecturer at the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies at Mahidol University. “One small incident can degenerate the whole situation.”
In the months before the coup, Bangkok was gripped by anti-government protests led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a politician-turned-agitator who lambasted Thaksin for what he called runaway corruption. Both Suthep and Yingluck were among the scores detained last week, but both were released by the military Monday, according to the Associated Press.
Suthep still faces insurrection charges for his role in the protests.
Voravit Chansiri contributed to this report.