Thai Coup Leaders Curb Dissent by Labeling Journalist ‘Aggressive’

Image: Protesters scuffle with Thai soldiers during an anti-coup demonstration at the Victory Monument in Bangkok

Protesters scuffle with Thai soldiers during an anti-coup demonstration at the Victory Monument in Bangkok, Thailand, on May 28, 2014. Wason Wanichakorn / AP

News analysis

BANGKOK, Thailand - Wassana Nanuam of the Bangkok Post is one of Thailand’s most experienced and respected reporters on military affairs. Now the tenacious journalist is proving to be a trial for the country’s new leaders by exposing their attempts to silence dissent in the wake of their coup.

Coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha ordered Wassana and her counterpart from the Thai-language newspaper Thai Rath to report to coup headquarters for a dressing down for asking “aggressive questions” on Tuesday.

At an earlier press conference given by the coup leader, Wassana had repeatedly asked Prayuth for a time-frame before a general election would be held, and whether the general intended to become prime minister.

Prayuth, who seized power on Thursday, largely evaded the question about the prime minister’s job, and said the time-frame prior to a new election could be “indefinite.”

At Coup HQ, a senior aide to Prayuth told the reporters in a 45-minute meeting that the coup leader was unhappy with the “forceful and aggressive” manner of their questioning. He told then such questioning could affect confidence in Prayuth’s leadership.

“The press should cheer him on,” the military aide said, according to the Bangkok Post, which carried a report about the bizarre meeting. To its credit, the paper also ran a brave editorial criticizing censorship.

“It is more dangerous to withhold the truth than to broadcast it,” the paper said.

Flash Protests Rattle Military Forces in Thailand 0:59

But not if you are the operator of the sky train that runs through Bangkok, which on Tuesday closed stations near Victory Monument to prevent people from reaching a flash protest. Announcements, claiming the closures were because of “overcrowding” on the stations, were greeted with derision.

The army said Wednesday it has now released 124 people from custody, including politicians and activists. A spokesman said they had summoned 253 people after the coup. He said 53 didn’t respond and 76 remained in custody.

It is impossible to verify the army’s figures, which have been greeted with skepticism by critics online who believe the real number is far higher.

According to Chaturon Chaisaeng, a former education minister arrested very publicly after addressing the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand Tuesday, conditions for release include signing a pledge not to criticize the junta or engage in political activities.

Thai Soldiers Publicly Arrest Anti-Coup Minister 1:22

The junta has now cancelled a scheduled Thursday appearance at the club that was meant to "explain" the coup to foreign journalists.

Also on Wednesday, television stations aired footage of detainees, including a top red shirt leader, at an unidentified location, in an apparent effort to show they are being treated well.

For those for whom this all sounds rather Orwellian, there’s further discomfort in the name chosen by the junta: the National Council for Peace and Order. That is strikingly similar to the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the junta that ruled neighboring Myanmar from 1988 to 1997, and arguably almost destroyed the country before changing its name.

Once a watchword for repression, Myanmar is now emerging from its dark military past -– just as Thailand again falls under the sway of its own generals.

Hopefully Prayuth’s timeframe for returning to democracy is a good deal shorter than SLORC’s was.