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Thai coup leader: Don't protest, it's no use

Tuesday - 5/27/2014, 3:06am  ET

In this photo released by the Royal Thai Army, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha receives a royal endorsement in front of the portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej at a ceremony in Bangkok, Thailand Monday, May 26, 2014. Bolstered by a royal endorsement to run the country after last week's coup, Thailand's junta leader warned Monday against mounting opposition to the takeover, ordering Thais not to cause trouble, not to criticize, not to protest - or else face a return to the "old days" of street violence. (AP Photo/Rpyal Thai Army)

TODD PITMAN
Associated Press

BANGKOK (AP) -- Bolstered by an endorsement from Thailand's king, the nation's new military ruler issued a stark warning Monday to anyone opposed to last week's coup: don't cause trouble, don't criticize, don't protest -- or else the nation could revert to the "old days" of turmoil and street violence.

Speaking in his first public appearance since the coup, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha defended the army's takeover, saying he had to restore order after seven months of increasingly violent confrontations between the now-ousted government and demonstrators who had long urged the army to intervene.

"I'm not here to argue with anyone. I want to bring everything out in the open and fix it," said Prayuth, who spoke at the army headquarters in Bangkok dressed in a crisp white military uniform.

"Everyone must help me," he said, adding: but "do not criticize, do not create new problems. It's no use."

The tough words came as an aide to former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said she had been released Monday from military custody after being held for three days at an undisclosed location without access to a telephone. The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said Yingluck had returned to her home.

In a gruff, 20-minute appearance, Prayuth warned the media and social media users to avoid doing anything that could fan the conflict. He also called on anti-coup protesters who have been staging small-scale demonstrations to stop.

"Right now there are people coming out to protest. So do you want to go back to the old days? I'm asking the people in the country, if you want it that way, then I will have to enforce the law."

Earlier Monday, a royal command sent in the name of King Bhumibol Adulyadej officially endorsed Prayuth to run the country and called for "reconciliation among the people."

Bhumibol, who is 86 and in fragile health, did not attend the ceremony, in which Prayuth knelt down before a large picture of the monarch and offered a decorated cone of banana leaves. The endorsement is a formality, but in a country where the king's word is supreme, it is one that carries enormous weight.

Thursday's coup, Thailand's second in eight years, deposed an elected government that had insisted for months that the nation's fragile democracy was under attack from protesters, the courts, and finally the army.

The country is deeply split between an elite establishment based in Bangkok and the south that cannot win elections on one side, and a poorer majority centered in the north that has begun to realize political and economic power on the other.

Despite Prayuth's threat to crack down on anti-coup protesters, soldiers did not use force against several hundred people who gathered again Monday at the city's Victory Monument and eventually dispersed on their own, vowing to return the next day.

"Freedom is more important, isn't it?" said Khao Thitipong. "If we don't have freedom, we don't have life."

Through a loudspeaker, a soldier taunted the protesters, saying they had been paid to come out. "Can you still call yourselves patriots?" he said.

The soldier also accused international journalists at the scene of inciting conflict. "Do you think they are good for Thailand?" he said, before addressing them directly in English: "Foreign media, you be careful."

In his speech, Prayuth defended the takeover, saying the army had to intervene because of sporadic violence that began last November as anti-government protests gathered steam. At least 28 people have been killed since then and more than 800 injured in grenade attacks, gun fights and drive-by shootings.

"We are not doing this for the soldiers. I'm doing this to protect the honor and dignity of all Thais. We cannot step back anymore. We have to stop arguing," he said. "The most important thing right now is to keep peace and order in the country."

After declaring martial law May 20, Prayuth invited political rivals and Cabinet ministers for two days of peace talks to resolve the crisis. But those talks lasted just four hours. At the end of the meeting, Prayuth ordered everyone inside detained, and announced the coup on state television almost immediately afterward.

The junta has ordered more than 200 people -- including most of the ousted government -- to report to the authorities. They include scholars, journalists and political activists seen as critical of the regime.

Some have been released, but others are being summoned daily -- including several more late Monday. Other activists have fled or are in hiding, and human rights groups describe a chilling atmosphere with soldiers visiting the homes of perceived critics and taking them away.

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