By Robert Birsel and Alan Raybould
Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was in a “safe place” on Saturday, an aide said, after being held by Thailand’s army following its seizure of power this week, as opposition to the coup grew among her supporters and pro-democracy activists.
The army moved on Thursday after failing to forge a compromise in a power struggle between Yingluck’s populist government and the royalist establishment, which brought months of sometimes violent unrest to Bangkok’s streets.
The military detained Yingluck on Friday when she and 154 other people, mostly political associates, were summoned to an army facility in Bangkok.
A senior officer had told Reuters she could be held for up to a week and Thai media reported she had been taken to an army base in Saraburi province north of Bangkok, but an aide denied that.
“Now she’s in a safe place … She has not been detained in any military camp. That’s all I can say at this moment,” the aide said, declining to be identified.
A source from her Puea Thai Party added: “We can’t say she is absolutely free because there are soldiers in the area, monitoring her.”
This source said several former ministers from her cabinet were being held in army facilities in Saraburi, neighbouring Lopburi province or Bangkok.
Army deputy spokesman Winthai Suvaree told a news conference on Saturday that anyone being held would not be detained for more than seven days. He did not mention Yingluck.
Thailand’s political woes are the latest chapter in a nearly decade-long clash between the Bangkok-based establishment and Thaksin Shinawatra, a former telecommunications tycoon who broke the mould of Thai politics with pro-poor policies that won him huge support and repeated electoral victories.
Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup and left the country after a 2008 graft conviction but he remains Thailand’s most influential politician and was the guiding hand behind the government of Yingluck, his sister.
Despite international calls for the restoration of democratic government, Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha has not promised a swift return to civilian rule, insisting there must be broad reforms and stability first.
“We must have economic, social and political reforms before elections,” he told hundreds of civil servants on Friday in his first comments on his plans since the coup.
“If the situation is peaceful, we are ready to return power to the people,” he added.
But reforms could take many months and stability could be elusive.
STIRRINGS OF OPPOSITION
The military has banned gatherings of more than five people, censored the media and imposed a 10 p.m to 5 a.m. curfew but that has not stopped some people from showing their disapproval.
Around 100 people gathered at a mall and entertainment complex in northern Bangkok on Saturday, holding up handwritten slogans such as “Anti the Coup”. Police officers tried to move them on but they were shouted down and retreated, a Reuters reporter said.
On Friday afternoon, several hundred people including students had gathered in a central Bangkok shopping district in what appeared to be a spontaneous show of opposition to the takeover rather than support for Thaksin and Yingluck. They say they will protest each day the military is in power.
Soldiers dispersed that crowd and at least one person was detained, a Reuters witness said.
A small crowd also staged a protest in the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thaksin’s hometown, on Friday, a Reuters witness said.
The real danger for the military would be a sustained mass campaign by Thaksin’s “red shirt” loyalists.
Thaksin’s supporters in his northern and northeastern heartlands have repeatedly said they would act if another pro-Thaksin government was forced from power unconstitutionally.
Thaksin has not commented publicly since the coup. He has lived in exile since 2008 rather than return to Thailand to face a jail sentence for an abuse of power conviction.
Activists say a “red shirt” group is organising a protest in northern Bangkok on Saturday in defiance of martial law.
A resolute, well-financed campaign by Thaksin’s red shirts, whose ranks include armed activists, would be a major test for the military.
The use of force to put down protesters could squander any legitimacy the military leaders may have after saying they took power in the first place to end violence and restore order.
A 2010 crackdown on Thaksin’s supporters ended in serious bloodshed and damage to the army’s image. Just over a year later a pro-Thaksin government was back in power after Yingluck’s sweeping election victory.