BANGKOK (Reuters) - Supporters of the Thai government ousted in a coup on Thursday appeared resigned to the removal, yet again, of the leaders they voted into power, and held out little hope that the army would be able to solve the country’s problems.
Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized control of the government two days after he declared martial law, saying the military had to restore order and push through reforms after six months of turmoil.
The ousted government and its supports are loyal to former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Their opponents, campaigning to bring down the government since November, are backed by the royalist establishment who see the populist Thaksin as a threat.
“The troops came, the leaders left. We weren’t scared,” said an elderly woman from Udon Thani province in Thailand’s northeast, who identified herself by her nickname Eungkan.
She was packing up along with thousands of comrades at a protest site in Bangkok’s western outskirts where Thaksin’s “red shirt” supporters have been gathered for nearly two weeks hoping to save their beleaguered government.
“This coup will not help anyone, it won’t help this country,” said Eungkan, 75, as a soldier ordered her and her companions to move on.
There was an eerie silence at what was left of the encampment. Trash was strewn across roads and under marquees, while tents, mats and plastic chairs were left abandoned.
Vendors cleared away pots, pans and electric fans, piling them into wheeled bins as soldiers clutching assault rifles stood by in clusters next to their Humvee vehicles lined up along the road.
Hundreds of troops were deployed to block vehicles from approaching about 2 km (one mile) from the protest site.
Onlookers gathered by the road, anxious to see what was happening beyond road blocks covered with razor wire. Residents on motorcycles negotiated with troops to get home.
Protesters said they watched the announcement of the coup on television and listened on radios. Soon, hundreds of troops marched towards them, firing into the air for less than a minute and ordering the crowd to disperse.
“IN THE DARK”
Several witnesses said they saw three people wounded by stray bullets but there was no official confirmation.
“They came with guns, we are here with nothing. We were just here to protect our government,” said a woman called Rien from Kalasin province, also in the northeast.
Thaksin, a billionaire former telecommunications tycoon, won the steadfast support of legions of Thailand’s poor, especially in the north and northeast, with policies such as cheap healthcare, loans and rice subsidies.
He won a landslide election in 2001 and again in 2005, but was dogged by accusations of corruption and nepotism and was even accused of being disrespectful to the monarchy.
He denied that, but fell out with the Bangkok-based elite and lost favor with middle-class voters who accused him of using his wealth, and taxpayers’ money, to buy elections.
He was ousted in a coup in 2006 but his party won the next election, only for two pro-Thaksin prime ministers to be thrown out of power after legal challenges.
The pro-establishment Democrat Party managed to form a government after winning over a small party in parliament and in
2010, the army dispersed pro-Thaksin protesters in Bangkok trying to bring down the Democrats and force a new election.
More than 90 people were killed in weeks of clashes.
Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, won power in a 2011 election.
Similar protests by Thaksin’s faithful are likely this time but they might take some time to organize.
“Right now, we are completely in the dark,” said Phuttiphong Khamhaengphon, a red shirt leader from the northeastern town of Khon Kaen. “We haven’t had any orders or coordination yet. We’re still going on as normal, but now is not a good time to talk.”
Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Mike Collett-White