Thai military faces hurdles in controlling Thaksin country in the north and northeast

There are doubts over loyalty of officials and police in Thaksin country

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 May, 2014, 5:08am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 May, 2014, 5:08am

For police and officials summoned by Thailand's new military rulers on Saturday in the northern pro-government stronghold of Chiang Mai, the reception at the headquarters of the 33rd Army unit was all sweetness - up to a point.

Outside, female soldiers sat behind a plastic pot plant, smiles affixed, as they signed in new arrivals.

But inside, with doors closed and tea and biscuits served, Major General Sarayuth Rungsri, the regional army commander, wasted little time. Reading out orders from the new military ruler, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Sarayuth had a blunt message for civilian officials: Squelch anti-army dissent or be transferred.

Such a call reflects the army's unease about whether it can ensure control of the country's north and northeast, both hotbeds of support for the deposed government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Chiang Mai, home of the Shinawatra clan, is a particular challenge. Protests, banned since Thursday's coup, have swelled in recent days in line with growing opposition on the streets of Bangkok.

On Saturday evening, a crowd of about 200 people faced off with the army near the walls of the old city, lighting candles and jeering at armed soldiers. Troops periodically plunged into the crowd to grab vocal protesters, leading to sporadic scuffles and the detention of at least six people.

Missing from the scene have been the organised protests by the "red-shirt" supporters of the Shinawatra family, in particular Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother, who was himself prime minister until he was deposed in Thailand's previous coup in 2006.

Troops had shut down the city's pro-Thaksin radio stations and held 16 local leaders of the movement incommunicado, said one fugitive red-shirt leader, who declined to be identified.

"I don't think we can do much at the moment since they've taken our radio equipment away. We'll have to put our movement on hold for a couple of months since the army is closely watching us," he said.

Regional army commander Sarayuth said only three red-shirt leaders had been detained. "We're taking good care of them, regardless of their colours," he said.Thaksin's loyalists had previously warned that a coup would be met with bloodshed.

A leader of one group, Rak Chiang Mai 51, Worawut Ruganapinunt, said on May 8 that a military takeover would prompt activists to declare autonomy for the north's 17 provinces.

That hasn't happened. Instead, Worawut was among those detained by the army.

Red-shirts have also warned that a coup could trigger mass defections among the strongly pro-Thaksin police and some soldiers. Only a handful of police have been seen at protests in Chiang Mai since the coup took place.

Two mid-ranking police officers, who declined to be identified, said local officers would at the very least be half-hearted in aiding a military crackdown against coup dissenters.

"Ninety-seven per cent of police are against the coup," one police lieutenant said.

"We will perform our duties for now, but if worst comes to worst and we are given orders to disperse crowds then we will give power back to the people."