BANGKOK >> A spokesman for Thailand’s coup leaders said Sunday that democracy had caused “losses” for the country, as the junta sought to combat growing international condemnation and hundreds of protesters angrily confronted soldiers in central Bangkok.
Small protests have persisted since the army seized power on Thursday after months of conflict between the elected government and a fierce opposition protest movement, and the junta has been pleading for patience.
At the same time, the military has been evasive about the political figures and other people it has summoned and detained, with the fate of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra — who surrendered herself Friday — and others remaining unclear.
There were reports circulating that Yingluck had been released on Sunday, but her aide said she had been moved but not freed.
“Ms. Yingluck is still under the military’s control, and I have not been informed about her current whereabouts,” said the aide, Wim Rungwattnachinda. “She, however, has been out of the army camp that she was held in and she is safe. She has not been freed to go home.”
Army Deputy Spokesman Col. Weerachon Sukondhapatipak said he had no information that Yingluck had been freed.
On Saturday, Weerachon said that more than 100 people were in detention, but the Prachatai website and anti-coup activists noted that there have been arrests of people not on official lists of those called to report to coup leaders.
Troops fanned out Sunday in one of Bangkok’s busiest shopping districts and blocked access to the city’s Skytrain in an attempt to prevent a third day of anti-coup demonstrations. They were soon met by a crowd of about 1,000 people, who shouted, “Get out, get out, get out!”
Tensions ran high, and at one point a group of soldiers was chased away by the crowds in the Ratchaprasong shopping district. By late afternoon, the protesters had moved to Victory Monument, a city landmark a few kilometers (miles) away, and their numbers had swelled past 2,000. Rows of soldiers were gathered, but troops did not move to break up the rally.
A speaker on a military truck said through loudspeakers, “Brothers and sisters, please use your reasons and logics, not emotions.”
The junta’s leader, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, had warned people earlier Sunday not to join anti-coup street protests, saying normal democratic principles cannot be applied at this time.
At a press briefing, spokesmen for the junta sought to deflect international criticism. The United States has cut off foreign aid and canceled military exercises with Thailand since the coup. The U.S. also is reconsidering its long military relationship with the Southeast Asian country, Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said.
The U.S. State Department on Saturday urged “the immediate restoration of civilian rule and release of detained political leaders, a return to democracy through early elections, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Asked about the U.S. relationship, the junta spokesmen expressed hope that Washington might consider what they called special circumstances, referring to several years of disruptive demonstrations by two bitterly divided factions that have at times paralyzed the country and led to violent clashes.
“For international issues, another difference is that democracy in Thailand has resulted in losses, which is definitely different from other countries and which is another detail we will clarify,” said army spokesman Col. Winthai Suvaree.
“For Thailand, its circumstances are different from others,” he said. “There is the use of weapons of war. Signs of violence against residents are everywhere. This is out of the ordinary.”
The junta has defended the detentions of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, most of the deposed government’s Cabinet, and dozens of politicians and activists. It also has ordered dozens of outspoken activists, academics and journalists to report to military authorities.
Pravit Rojanaphruk, an outspoken columnist for the English-language daily The Nation, tweeted that he was reporting to the junta after being summoned. “On my way to see the new dictator of Thailand. Hopefully the last,” he wrote.
Gen. Prayuth has justified the coup by saying the army had to act to avert violence and end half a year of political turmoil triggered by anti-government protests that killed 28 people and injured more than 800.
The protests were part of a cycle of dueling demonstrations between supporters of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — Yingluck’s brother, who himself was ousted in a 2006 military coup — and staunch opponents with support of Thailand’s traditional establishment.
The intractable divide plaguing the country today is part of an increasingly precarious power struggle between an elite, conservative minority backed by powerful businessmen and staunch royalists based in Bangkok and the south that can no longer win elections, and the political machine of Thaksin and his supporters in the rural north who backed him because of populist policies such as virtually free health care.
Parties allied with Thaksin have won every election in Thailand since 2001. The government deposed Thursday rose to power in a landslide election in 2011 that was deemed fair, and Yingluck served as prime minister until she was forced from office earlier this month by a controversial court ruling for abuse of power, which she denies.
The government had insisted for months that Thailand’s fragile democracy was under attack from protesters, the courts and, finally, the army, which together had rendered it powerless.
The army launched the coup after ordering two days of brief peace talks last week in which the country’s political rivals failed to end their deadlock. Since November, anti-government protesters had been calling for the army to intervene and support their bid to overthrow the government, which they accused of corruption.
The turbulence has played out against a backdrop of fears about the future of Thailand’s monarchy. Thaksin’s critics have accused him of disrespecting ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej and trying to gain influence with Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the heir to the throne.
The king, who is 86, has been silent on the crisis.
Associated Press writers Todd Pitman and Grant Peck contributed to this report.