BANGKOK: Thailand’s junta on Wednesday freed leaders of the “Red Shirt” movement allied to the ousted government, as social media users reacted with alarm to rumors of a “block” of Facebook.
Since seizing power last week the military has summoned more than 250 people, curtailed liberties under martial law, and imposed a nightly curfew as part of a series of measures that have sparked dismay among rights groups.
A fugitive former cabinet minister arrested by soldiers who swooped on a press briefing a day earlier was brought before a military court on Wednesday to acknowledge charges of denying an order to report to the junta and of “provocation,” police said.
If convicted, ex-education minister Chaturon Chaisang could be imprisoned. He had used a press conference to criticize the coup minutes before being detained.
Analysts say the move to detain political figures from across the kingdom’s bitter divide is aimed at quelling potential opposition to the May 22 coup.
After an outcry on the Internet, the army interrupted national television to deny it had blocked Facebook after the site briefly went down and caused panic online.
“Surely that would be suicide. Whole country would protest,” one user wrote on Twitter of the rumors the site was under siege in the kingdom.
Some users were unconvinced with the junta’s denial, speculating that it could have been a trial run for a possible blackout in the future, or a warning shot to social media users not to criticize the coup.
Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are hugely popular in the country, and have been used by anti-coup protesters to organize small protests against the military regime.
Despite warnings by the army of a widening crackdown on dissent, protesters have been gathering in Bangkok in small but vehement rallies against the military takeover, while rival pro-coup rallies have also sprung up.
But in a possible sign that the army is more confident about its grip on power, key members of the Red Shirts protest group were released on Wednesday after nearly a week in detention.
The movement’s chairman Jatuporn Prompan said they were “treated well.”
“What we have been most concerned about is that the losses [of life]in 2010 should not happen again in 2014—we should learn the lessons,” he said, referring to a bloody military crackdown on their rallies against a previous government that left dozens dead.
The army has said people who have been detained and released since the coup must sign a document promising to cease political activity.
Senior members of their rival protest movement as well as former premiers Yingluck Shinawatra and Abhisit Vejjajiva have also been held and since released.
Dozens of people are still being detained under broad army powers enabling the new government to hold people without charge for up to seven days.
Those freed “cannot travel overseas and must refrain from expressing political opinions that can cause confusion,” said army spokeswoman Sirichan Ngathong.
Thailand is no stranger to military intervention in politics, with 19 actual or attempted coups in its modern history.
The country has been rocked by increasingly severe political division and street protest for a decade.
The unrest centers on Yingluck’s elder brother Thaksin Shinawatra — a telecoms tycoon-turned-politician who was ousted by the military in an earlier coup in 2006.
The path towards the army takeover began late last year when anti-Thaksin forces launched protests in Bangkok calling for Yingluck’s government to be thrown out as they sought to rid Thai politics of the influence of the family, which they accuse of corruption.
At least 28 people died and hundreds more were wounded in violence linked to the rallies.