BANGKOK: Thailand's top generals lured the former government and its supporters into a trap by arranging peace talks between political heavyweights then seizing power in a coup moments later, a deposed minister said on Sunday.
Speaking to Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location, ousted Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang said he was suspicious of army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha's motives for declaring martial law on Tuesday, then calling all key players in the crisis to the negotiating table two days later.
"I felt something wasn't right. I tried to warn cabinet members, but I couldn't get the message across in time," Chaturon said.
"It was a trap. They'd planned it earlier, then they staged the coup and ordered the other Puea Thai Party members to report to them. I knew something was wrong," he said, referring to the ruling party of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Chaturon was describing Thursday's meeting at the Army Club, a military social venue that's now the de facto seat of government. Sources at those talks described how gun-toting troops rushed in to secure politicians, activists and even journalists as Prayuth abruptly left, then appeared on television to say negotiations had collapsed, so the army had seized power.
"This must have been prepared for some time," Chaturon said, adding he suspected the opposition Democrat Party, an anti-government protest group and the royalist establishment had colluded with the army to overthrow the government.
The whereabouts of Yingluck, her cabinet members, other senior party members and their so-called red shirt supporters remain unknown. They formed the bulk of political players summoned to report to the junta, although some of their opponents, who led six months of protests to bring Yingluck down, have also been detained.
Chaturon, a close ally of self-exiled billionaire and former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother and the driving force behind the deposed government, said he was unable to make contact with any of his associates and feared most were in military custody.
He raised doubts about whether the "red shirts", the formidable pro-Thaksin protest movement, would be able to regroup and fight against the takeover, as they had vowed, because their leaders were being held.
He said the coup was unlike others in Thailand's recent history because the army was stamping out dissent, muzzling the media and deploying swift measures to arrest anyone with potential to disrupt their rule.
"This is very serious indeed, it's very bad," Chaturon said. "There are several military units out to arrest me. It seems they'll detain a lot of people and we don't know for how long. It's going to be very oppressive."
The military has said it would detain people for a week at most.
"I don't want to stay underground, neither do I plan to join any rebellion against the coup-makers. This must be resolved by peaceful means," Chaturon said.
Chaturon was a minister and member of the Thai Rak Thai party that Thaksin led to two landslide election victories before the generals, Prayuth among them, staged the last coup in 2006, accusing Thaksin of graft and disloyalty to the monarchy.
He said the political climate had changed significantly since then and the junta would face a lot more resistance, as shown by protests in days since the coup in Bangkok and in north and northeastern provinces.
"The resistance from the people has already started, very early, and it seems to be spontaneous, not organised. There's no leaders left," he said.
"No one wants this suppression of the people. I hope there won't be oppression and harsh measures against them. We don't want to see violence or casualties because those who will be suppressed are those who want democracy and did nothing wrong."
Chaturon raised doubts about Prayuth's political reform path and said any constitution or new legislation would be designed to sideline the Shinawatra family and its allies and end their more than a decade of electoral dominance.
"Any election after that would be meaningless," he said. "The system will be designed so no matter which party people vote for, it won't be able to form a government."