BANGKOK, Thailand - Thailand’s coup leader warned citizens not to criticize their new government on Monday, saying the country faced a return to chaos and clashes if demonstrators continued their violent protests.
“Do not criticize, do not create new problems. It's no use," Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha said in his first news conference since seizing power on Thursday. "I'm not here to argue with anyone. I want to bring everything out in the open and fix it."
For a man who used to portray himself as a reluctant coup-maker, Prayuth looked to be accumulating dictatorial powers with considerable relish.
But while he and his fellow coup-leaders appear to have done their homework on the “red-shirt” supporters of the ousted government -– quickly detaining key leaders, thereby probably heading off any immediate large-scale organized opposition to the coup –- the generals seem to have been surprised, wrong-footed and embarrassed by a rash of flash protests that have broken out across Bangkok.
These have been organized largely by social media, and attracted a broad range of support, from students to Bangkok housewives, united in revulsion at military rule.
On Monday, some 300 protesters massed at Bangkok’s Victory Monument, carrying simple hand-written signs, reading “Get Out,” “No Coup” and “Want Democracy.”
The massive army and police presence at the monument was a sign, perhaps, that the armed forces are unsure how to react to the passionate and highly mobile new form of protest.
For some it seemed to be their first protest. These were not the hard core veterans of the red shirts or their rival yellow shirted rivals.
Soldiers with riot shields quickly gathered at a protest outside a downtown McDonalds on Sunday, but seemed bewildered. Then having made their point the protesters melted away.
Another similar crowd, perhaps a thousand strong, gathered at the city’s Victory Monument. Here there was jostling with soldiers until the protesters called it a day.
Prayuth has muttered darkly about cracking down on these gatherings, but it is hard to see how he can do that in without undermining his spurious justification for the coup – that’s he’s bringing peace to the streets.
More such protests are planned, and could easily snowball.
Prayuth and his fellow coup leaders Monday gathered in full dress uniform to announce they had received royal endorsement for their coup. But it seems a tepid sort of endorsement, by letter, brandished by Prayuth: no audience with the King, as in previous coups.
And no big portraits of the King behind or flanking the Generals, as were so conspicuous last time the Generals seized power, in 2006.
It could well be that ailing 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej was simply too unwell to see them.
What is more certain is one unifying them of Thailand’s many coups –- 19 actual or attempted coups in the modern era –- is that they have never succeeded without Royal endorsement.
The last coup in 2006 was also peppered with pledges to quickly install worthy interim rulers who would command respect and quickly restore democracy. It did not quite work out that way, but this time democracy seems to be very much an afterthought in Prayuth’s rhetoric.
His comments Monday were full of empty generalizations, and certainly no timetable for elections. It seems odds on that Prayuth will grab the prime minister’s chair for himself.
The Associated Press contributed to this report