Thai army gets down to work on economy, stifles dissent

BANGKOK Mon May 26, 2014 11:17pm EDT

1 of 8. A protester against military rule points her finger near the face of a riot police officer during a rally at the Victory Monument in Bangkok May 26, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Erik De Castro

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BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's military rulers will settle down to work at their Bangkok headquarters on Tuesday, firmly in charge after royal endorsement but facing small protests that the security forces have so far handled with restraint.

Coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha said on Monday he had been formally endorsed by King Bhumibol Adulyadej as head of a military council in charge of the country. He warned he would use force if protests flared up again.

Prayuth seized power last week, saying the army had to restore order after nearly seven months of sometimes deadly demonstrations.

The junta has moved quickly to tackle economic problems, notably preparing payments for hundreds of thousands of rice farmers that the ousted government was unable to make.

The military has detained scores of politicians and activists and anyone defying a summons could be jailed for up to two years. It has censored the media and imposed a nightly curfew.

"We are very firm on our strategy when it comes to anti-coup protesters," said deputy army spokesman Winthai Suvaree. "If they break the law, we have to detain them. If they don't go home by 10 p.m. curfew time, we must take them in."

He said the army had found a number of weapons in raids around the country in recent days.

"Most of these appear to belong to those linked to the 'red shirt' movement," Winthai said, referring to supporters of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who is at the heart of the long-running crisis in Thailand and was also deposed by the military, in 2006.

An army ranger was killed on Monday in Trat province, southeast of Bangkok near the Cambodian border, in a clash during a raid on suspected pro-Thaksin activists. Authorities seized weapons and detained suspected activists late last week in the northeast, a Thaksin stronghold.

Along with maintaining order, the immediate focus of the military's work is boosting the battered economy.

Prolonged protests by groups seeking to oust Yingluck have hurt business confidence, halted much government spending and scared away tourists. The economy is on the brink of recession after shrinking 2.1 percent in the first quarter.

NO ELECTION DATE

Yingluck was removed by the Constitutional Court on May 7 and the military seized power on May 22.

Her brother Thaksin has lived in self-exile since 2008 to avoid a graft conviction he says was politically motivated, but remains Thailand's most influential politician, hugely popular among poorer Thais, particularly in the rural, populous north and northeast.

He or his parties have won every election since 2001 and would probably do so again. The royalist, pro-establishment protesters who took over parts of Bangkok from last November wanted changes to the electoral system and disrupted an election in February that was later annulled.

Prayuth gave no timeframe for a new election in a statement broadcast nationwide on Monday. Thaksin has not commented to the media since the coup but said on Twitter he was saddened.

The junta has based itself at the Royal Thai Army Headquarters, an imposing colonial-style building set back across a lawn on a grand Bangkok avenue.

A few kilometers east is Victory Monument, where protesters have been gathering daily, defying martial law to denounce the coup and call for elections.

Police and soldiers turned out in force on Monday to block several hundred jeering protesters. There were scuffles but no serious trouble.

"Unit commanders and some others have loaded weapons but only where necessary. Mostly we are trying to use other measures which have so far been very effective, including announcements over loudspeakers," deputy army spokesman Winthai said.

Soldiers had taunted the crowd on Monday, saying they were being paid to turn up. The soldiers also carped at foreign media, accusing them of trying to damage Thailand.

"The game is over. You can go home now. See you tomorrow," a soldier said over the speakers as the crowd melted into falling darkness.

At nearby Democracy Monument, a small crowd came with posters in support of the army and handed soldiers roses.

Most voters in the capital favor the establishment and approve of the coup if it means getting rid of Thaksin. They believe that as well enriching himself, he was disrespectful to the monarchy. He has denied that.

The crisis between the establishment and Thaksin comes amid anxiety over the issue of royal succession. The king, the world's longest-reigning monarch, is 86 and spent the years from 2009 to 2013 in hospital.

Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn does not command the same devotion as his father, but some Thaksin supporters have recently been expressing their loyalty to the prince.

Some of Thaksin's "red shirt" loyalists, stunned and leaderless since the coup, believe the military will introduce changes to block the Shinawatras from politics once and for all.

(Additional reporting by Bangkok bureau; Editing by Alan Raybould and Alex Richardson)

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