BANGKOK, Thailand – Thailand's new military rulers banned all political gatherings and activities at the local level Sunday, further cementing their powers and pre-empting any opposition following last week's bloodless coup.
The ruling military council, under pressure from critics at home and abroad, also said an interim civilian government may be announced in the next week.
The military had said it would hand over power to civilians within two weeks of Tuesday's coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and that a new election would be held by October of next year.
Western governments and human rights groups have decried the takeover, particularly after the military leaders began restricting freedom of assembly and speech. The military is ruling under martial law and public gatherings of more than five people are banned.
It has also called on the media to exercise self-censorship.
The latest order — announced on local television stations Sunday night — calls for all organizations at the district and provincial levels "to stop their activities and political gathering until the situation returns to normal."
Maj. Gen. Tanongsak Apirakyothin, the deputy army chief for Thailand's northern provinces, told The Associated Press there had been some meetings of local politicians in the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thaksin's hometown and stronghold, and they "criticized the coup as wrong."
Military officials approached them and asked them to stop their activities, he said.
Although the coup met with no resistance and was generally welcomed by the Thai people, there had been rumors of a possible countercoup in the first few days. No signs of any emerged.
Despite the ban, students from Bangkok's Thammasat University announced they would hold a public seminar Monday to discuss the coup. They described the meeting as an act of civil disobedience because it breeches the rule on gatherings.
The military hopes to justify its takeover by exposing corruption — widely believed to be massive — under Thaksin. It also charged that Thaksin had insulted the country's revered monarchy and interfered with independent state bodies.
The military council said Sunday it was creating a new panel to probe corruption and that it will have the right to seize politicians' assets.
Military leaders last week revived the state National Counter Corruption Commission, appointing its nine members to carry out investigations into state corruption. That commission — which will continue its work — can only seek to prosecute cases through the courts and cannot seize assets or otherwise enforce it findings. The new panel will have powers of enforcement.
Speculation has been rife in Thailand that the democratically elected Thaksin may have sneaked some of his wealth out of the country just before the coup, but there has been no confirmation of this from the military council.
Airline officials said Sunday that two planes chartered by Thaksin days before the takeover were carrying an unusually large amount of luggage — more than 100 cases and trunks. Thaksin was in New York attending the U.N. General Assembly when the coup occurred and is now in London.
An official from Thai Airways International, who spoke on condition of anonymity because company policy did not allow him to speak to the press, said he wanted the new ruling military council to investigate the incidents.
"Any cases that cause serious damage to the country, we will have to investigate urgently," said Parnthep Klanarongran, the new chief of the National Counter Corruption Commission.
Thaksin's critics say the former prime minister, a telecommunications tycoon before becoming a politician, used his office to enrich himself and his associates. The former prime minister's family was one of the wealthiest in Southeast Asia even before he came to office in 2001.
The leading candidates for interim prime minister appear to be Charnchai Likhitjittha, president of the Supreme Court; Ackaratorn Chularat, president of the Supreme Administrative Court; Supachai Panitchpadki, who heads the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development; Pridiyathorn Devakula, chief of Thailand's central bank; and ex-Finance Minister Chatumongkol Sonakul.
All are regarded as corruption-free and either politically neutral or on record as having opposed Thaksin's regime.
Thaksin's decline, after three overwhelming election victories since 2001, began after a large popular movement sprang up demanding he step down because of alleged corruption and abuse of power.