BANGKOK – Stern warnings from Thailand's military junta to stop criticizing the coup have not deterred protesters, who have been gathering and staring down soldiers in defiance of martial law.
The numbers have been relatively small: Several hundred people gathered Monday at Victory Monument and eventually dispersed on their own, vowing to return the next day.
"Freedom is more important, isn't it?" said Khao Thitipong. "If we don't have freedom, we don't have life."
Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the nation's new military ruler, warned coup opponents Monday not to protest, saying the nation could revert to the "old days" of turmoil and street violence if they did.
"Right now there are people coming out to protest. So do you want to go back to the old days?" Prayuth said in his first public appearance since the coup. "I'm asking the people in the country, if you want it that way, then I will have to enforce the law."
Monday's protest was tense but nonviolent, as others have been since last week, when the army first declared martial law and then announced it was taking over the government.
Through a loudspeaker, a soldier taunted the protesters, saying they had been paid to come out. "Can you still call yourselves patriots?" he said.
The soldier also accused international journalists at the scene of inciting conflict. "Do you think they are good for Thailand?" he said, before addressing them directly in English: "Foreign media, you be careful."
In a gruff, 20-minute appearance at the army headquarters in Bangkok, Prayuth warned the media and social media users to avoid doing anything that could fan the conflict.
Dressed in a crisp white military uniform, Prayuth said he had to restore order after seven months of increasingly violent confrontations between the now-ousted government and demonstrators who had long urged the army to intervene.
"I'm not here to argue with anyone. I want to bring everything out in the open and fix it
"Everyone must help me," he said. "Do not criticize, do not create new problems. It's no use."
The tough words came as an aide to former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said she had been released Monday from military custody after being held for three days at an undisclosed location without access to a telephone. The aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said Yingluck had returned to her home.
Earlier Monday, a royal command sent in the name of King Bhumibol Adulyadej officially endorsed Prayuth to run the country and called for "reconciliation among the people."
Bhumibol, who is 86 and in fragile health, did not attend the ceremony, in which Prayuth knelt down before a large picture of the monarch and offered a decorated cone of banana leaves. The endorsement is a formality, but in a country where the king's word is supreme, it is one that carries enormous weight.
Thursday's coup, Thailand's second in eight years, deposed an elected government that had insisted for months that the nation's fragile democracy was under attack from protesters, the courts, and finally the army.
The country is deeply split between an elite establishment based in Bangkok and the south that cannot win elections on one side, and a poorer majority centered in the north that has begun to realize political and economic power on the other.
After declaring martial law May 20, Prayuth invited political rivals and Cabinet ministers for two days of peace talks to resolve the crisis. But those talks lasted just four hours. At the end of the meeting, Prayuth ordered everyone inside detained, and announced the coup on state television almost immediately afterward.
The junta has ordered more than 200 people — including most of the ousted government — to report to the authorities. They include scholars, journalists and political activists seen as critical of the regime.
Some have been released, but others are being summoned daily — including several more late Monday. Other activists have fled or are in hiding, and human rights groups describe a chilling atmosphere with soldiers visiting the homes of perceived critics and taking them away.
Prayuth said the army was taking people into custody to give them time "to calm themselves down" and none was being tortured or beaten.
"When summoned, they will be asked about what they've done. ... If they are calm and still, they will be released, in three days, five days, seven days," Prayuth said.
On Monday, the army released ex-lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban, who led half a year of demonstrations against the deposed government.
Suthep was escorted to the criminal court by security officers and formally charged with murder for giving the army orders to crack down on protesters in 2010 when he was serving as deputy prime minister. But he was immediately released on bail and grinned broadly as walked out of the courthouse.
The junta has yet to map a way out of the crisis, but Prayuth said there would be political and administrative reforms. On Monday, he gave the green light for the Finance Ministry to seek billions of dollars in loans to pay debts owed farmers under a disastrous rice scheme instituted by the ousted government.
Associated Press writers Grant Peck and Kay Johnson contributed to this report.