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Politics

Thailand's coup: the general applies a full nelson

BANGKOK -- On May 22, the second day of military-brokered talks between the Thai government and activists bent on ousting it, movement spokesman Akanat Promphan could tell that something was wrong.

     Akanat and his father-in-law, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, arrived at the Army Club where the talks were being held, only to have their mobile phones seized. That had not happened the day before. And the number of armed guards had plainly increased.

     A little more than a month on from Thailand's military coup, The Nikkei has pieced together what happened that day, based on accounts from people involved.

     Seven players in the political crisis were represented at the talks, each by five delegates. Suthep's outfit, the People's Democratic Reform Committee, was there. So was an opposing group, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, or UDD, whose Red Shirts follow ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the political movement he founded.

     Also in attendance were officials from the democratically elected pro-Thaksin government -- until recently headed by Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra -- ruling and opposition parties, the Senate, and the Election Commission.

     But the real standoff was between the Thaksin camp, eager to hold a general election it was sure would return the ruling party to power, and the PDRC, which wanted a provisional government with no ties to Thaksin to push through reforms first.

     Around 3:50 p.m., at Suthep's request, the PDRC and UDD representatives went off into a separate room to talk in private. "We were able to have a surprisingly constructive discussion," Akanat recalls. Thailand was now under martial law, reducing the risk of violence. Thinking that they had plenty of time, the two sides exchanged mobile numbers in anticipation of another meeting.

     But little did Akanat know that the moment that would confirm his dark premonition was fast approaching.

     At 4:20, Suthep and UDD leader Jatuporn Prompan returned to the main room to find a stony-faced Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha waiting. They told the army chief that a compromise was in sight but required more time. Prayuth motioned for them to be seated. Without responding to their announcement, he turned to the government's representative, Justice Minister Chaikasem Nitisiri.

     "I'll ask you just one more time," the general said. "Will the entire cabinet resign?"

     The answer was no, as it had been several times that day. The rebuffed general went from Jekyll to Hyde. He abruptly broke off the talks with a soft-spoken but unmistakable declaration: "I'm sorry, but I must seize power." Only the clack of the justice minister's dropped pen was heard in the hushed room. Akanat jotted down the time: 4:32.

     Prayuth told everyone to stay put. He himself left the room, and a stream of soldiers rushed in. The Senate and Election Commission representatives were given leave to go. But when cabinet member Warathep Rattanakorn made a hasty move for the exit, two soldiers put him in a full nelson and led him back to his seat.

     The 25 people in the room were secreted to a white van that took them to another army facility. Just before 5 p.m., Prayuth went on television to declare that Thailand was now under military rule.

Snapshots and gunshots

For Thaksin supporters and their opponents gathered in Bangkok, what happened next could not have been more different. At the PDRC rally outside the United Nations complex, supporters were gathering for Suthep's regular evening address. A volunteer cooking fried noodles for the protesters recalls noticing a buzz around her. People were glued to their mobile phones, reading news of the coup on social media.

     Folk music continued to blare from the stage, but the giant monitor remained off. A little past 7 p.m., a protest leader told everyone to disband: today was the last day. As soldiers stood by, people began quietly getting ready to go home. Someone on a megaphone called out to anyone interested in taking photos with the armed men, eliciting laughs from the crowd.

     Twenty kilometers away, across the Chao Phraya River, UDD partisans were camped out like a giant red swarm. Among them was 58-year-old woman from Sakon Nakhon Province in the rural northeast.

     Around 5 p.m., soldiers with machine guns had burst onto the stage. One snatched the microphone away from the rally leader who was speaking, demanded silence, and ordered the crowd to lie low. Moments later, more than 50 shots rang out, interspersed with freighted cries.

     Soldiers began leading people away to buses waiting to take them home. Some Red Shirts resisted. "Don't look back," soldiers barked.

     The woman, along with 10 other people from the same part of the country, climbed into the back of a pickup truck. She heard sobbing around her. As the woman's brother drove home amid a nighttime curfew, their truck was stopped at one military checkpoint after another. Exhausted, she arrived in her hometown around 7 the following morning.

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