BANGKOK — The Thai military seized control of the country Thursday and detained at least 25 leading politicians in a culmination of months of maneuvering by the Bangkok establishment to sideline a populist movement that has won every national election since 2001.
It was the second time in a decade that the army had overthrown an elected government, but there were signs that this takeover could be more severe, including sharp curbs on Thailand’s freewheeling media.
The coup was seen as a victory for the elites in Thailand who have grown disillusioned with popular democracy and have sought for years to diminish the electoral power of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister who commands support in the rural north. Unable to win elections, the opposition has instead called for an appointed prime minister and pleaded with the military for months to step in.
As soldiers spread out throughout Bangkok on Thursday, the generals issued a series of announcements, declaring most of the constitution “terminated,” banning gatherings of more than five people, imposing a curfew, and shutting schools.
The coup was at least the 12th military takeover since Thailand abandoned the absolute monarchy in 1932. But unlike many of the previous coups that involved infighting among generals, Thursday’s takeover had as subtext the political awakening among rural Thais who have supported Thaksin and benefited from patronage and policies such as universal health care and microloans.
Critics of Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon who lives in self-imposed exile, say he also took corruption to a new level.
With one of Southeast Asia’s largest economies, Thailand has long been attractive to foreign investors and tourists drawn by its reputation as “the land of smiles.” But in recent months, it has made headlines for the many attempts by antigovernment protesters to suspend democracy, a jarring contrast with its open, cosmopolitan image.
The military and Bangkok establishment now face the question of either retaining the power gained from the coup or returning the country to democracy — with the likelihood that Thaksin and his proven political machine would return to power in elections. The coup in 2006 unseated Thaksin, but his backers came back to win at the polls, leading to his younger sister, Yingluck, becoming prime minister in 2011.
Although the leader of the antigovernment movement, Suthep Thaugsuban, was detained Thursday, his supporters praised the coup.
“This is a victory day for the people,” Samdin Lertbutr, a protest leader, said. “The military has done their job. And we have done our job.”
The coup drew immediate rebukes from abroad.
Secretary of State John Kerry said he was disappointed by the decision to overthrow the country’s leaders. He urged that civilian government be restored immediately.
“There is no justification for this military coup,” he said in a statement that also called for the release of political leaders. “While we value our long friendship with the Thai people, this act will have negative implications for the US-Thai relationship, especially for our relationship with the Thai military.”
A spokesman at the Defense Department said the Pentagon was reviewing its relationship with the military. Planned joint exercises are set for Monday.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also appealed for a “prompt return to constitutional, civilian, democratic rule.”
Six months of debilitating protests in Thailand have centered on whether to hold elections to end the political unrest. Protesters have occupied government buildings, forcing even the prime minister to work elsewhere, and courts and independent government agencies have issued a series of rulings favorable to the protesters, including prohibiting the government from dispersing demonstrators. Some of those rulings have been derided by legal scholars.
The military said it would be fair to both sides in the continuing political dispute. But it allowed antigovernment demonstrators to remain in their protest site overnight, even as soldiers in black masks dispersed crowds loyal to Thaksin and the deposed government.
After deposing Thaksin in 2006, the generals put in place an administration that was widely seen as a failure.
“The lesson they learned the last time was that the medicine they prescribed after the coup was not strong enough,” said Thongchai Winichakul, a former activist in Thailand who is now a history professor at the University of Wisconsin. “There’s a high possibility of very drastic measures and suppression this time.”