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Published: Tuesday May 27, 2014 MYT 9:15:10 PM
Updated: Tuesday May 27, 2014 MYT 9:15:10 PM

Thai army gets down to work on economy, detains ex-minister

A masked soldier stands guard during a rally against military rule at the Victory Monument in Bangkok May 26, 2014.   REUTERS/Erik De Castro

A masked soldier stands guard during a rally against military rule at the Victory Monument in Bangkok May 26, 2014. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's military rulers settled down to work at their Bangkok headquarters on Tuesday, firmly in charge with royal endorsement while rounding up critics and searching for weapons they fear could still be used to fight their takeover.

Soldiers burst into a journalists' club in Bangkok and detained a former minister after he had denounced the coup saying it would bring disaster.

A protest in Bangkok passed off without incident with fewer people coming out to chant their opposition to the coup compared with previous days.

Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power on Thursday, saying the army had to restore order after nearly seven months of sometimes deadly demonstrations.

He said on Monday he had been formally recognised by King Bhumibol Adulyadej as head of the ruling military council, a crucial seal of legitimacy in a country where the monarchy is the most important institution.

The junta has moved quickly to stamp out dissent and 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," deputy army spokesman Winthai Suvaree said of the protests. "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 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.

Thaksin was deposed by the military in 2006 and has lived abroad since 2008 to avoid a graft conviction.

But he remains Thailand's most influential politician, hugely popular among the rural poor in the north and northeast but loathed by the royalist establishment and Bangkok middle class who see him as an upstart challenger to the old order.

'UPHEAVAL'

Some Thaksin loyalists had vowed to resist any takeover and the army and police are hunting for weapons.

"Anyone holding weapons without explicit permission will be considered a criminal," central region army commander General Thirachai Nakwanich told reporters.

General Preecha Chan-ocha, a younger brother of army chief Prayuth, told Reuters the army was "monitoring underground movements of red shirt activists".

"We believe activities are still being organised that could cause political upheaval," he said.

An army ranger was killed on Monday in a raid on suspected pro-Thaksin activists in the east. Last week, authorities seized weapons and detained several suspects in the northeast. Raids have also been conducted in the north.

Former Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang, on the run after refusing to turn himself in after the coup, was detained by soldiers who burst in to the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand where he had just finished speaking.

Chaturon had told reporters the coup would exacerbate conflict.

"From now on there will be more and more arrests, society will be in a worse situation. The economy will be in a bad situation ... It will be a disaster," he said.

The immediate focus for the military, apart from maintaining order, has been the battered economy.

The political crisis has hurt business confidence and halted much government spending. The economy is on the brink of recession after shrinking 2.1 percent in the first quarter.

The Tourism Ministry said arrivals had plunged since the coup and navy chief Narong Pipattanasai, a member of the military's council, said he wanted to let tourists know things were fine.

But pop star Taylor Swift called off her June 9 Bangkok show. She gave no reason but sent her love to Thai fans on Twitter, saying: "I'm so sad about the concert being cancelled."

"GOOD COUP"

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

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

Prayuth has given no timeframe for a new election. Thaksin has not commented to the media since the coup but said on Twitter he was sad.

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

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

About 200 people milled around the monument on Tuesday, holding up signs and chanting for the army to "get out".

At nearby Democracy Monument, a small crowd came out to support the army.

Most Bangkok voters favour 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.

"This is a good coup," said Chanchai Thonprasertvej, 54, a medical doctor. "The army can protect the land and the king. It will protect my country from Thaksin."

They dispersed after singing the national anthem.

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 loyalists believe the military will introduce changes to block the Shinawatras from politics once and for all.

(Additional reporting by Paul Mooney, Bangkok bureau; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Alan Raybould and Nick Macfie)

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