Thai junta tracks Internet posting to capture protest leader

Soldiers take up positions to stop protests against military at a shopping district in Bangkok on June 1, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Soldiers take up positions to stop protests against military at a shopping district in Bangkok on June 1, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (REUTERS) - Thailand's security forces have tracked down and detained a prominent activist who helped organise protests against last month's military coup from comments he posted on the Internet, officials said on Friday.

Sombat Boonngamanong was caught in Chonburi province east of Bangkok late on Thursday, traced via the Internet network he was using, said Major General Pisit Pao-in, head of a technology crime division at the Information and Communication Technology Ministry. "Soldiers and police were informed of the IP address used by Sombat to post comments so we searched a house in Chonburi and found Sombat there. We detained him. He is now with the army at an army base in Chonburi," Pisit told Reuters on Friday. "The case is now with the army and it will investigate and decide how to proceed next."

The detention was the latest in the military crackdown on pro-democracy dissidents and supporters of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Yingluck, her ministers and prominent supporters of the Shinawatras have been detained, most for brief periods, and warned against anti-military activity.

The military has not said how many people are being kept in custody.

The coup was the latest chapter in a decade-long conflict between the Bangkok-based royalist establishment, dominated by the military and old-money families, and supporters of Yingluck and her brother, ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who are adored by the poor in the north and northeast.

Yingluck was prime minister until May 7, when a court found her guilty of abuse of power and she stepped down. The army toppled the remnants of her government on May 22, saying it needed to restore order after sometimes deadly protests since November that had brought the economy close to recession.

Since then the junta has moved to suppress criticism and nip protests in the bud.

Sombat had refused to turn himself in to the military authorities after being summoned following the coup.

In contravention of the junta's ban on political gatherings of more than five people, he had helped organise protests via social media that were an irritant to the military without threatening its grip on power, the military said.

Last Sunday, the ruling military council sent 5,700 troops and police sent into central Bangkok to stop anti-coup protests as soon as they sprang up. Most were small events held around shopping malls. Very few protests have been seen this week.

Sombat had helped organise regular demonstrations to mark a crackdown by the military on the "red shirts" in May 2010 that ended a lengthy protest during which more than 90 people died.

Former Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang was brought to a military court in brown prison garb and handcuffs on Friday so the authorities could extend his detention after he failed to turn himself in when summoned.

According to the army, he had also posted information online that was inaccurate and misled foreign media. He was arrested in Bangkok on May 27 at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand, bundled away by soldiers after addressing journalists. "Everyone is worried about him. Today we must come to give encouragement for those who are fighting for democracy," Thitima Chaisaeng, his sister and a former government spokeswoman, told reporters, adding that Chaturon's lawyers would request bail.

The army has detained politicians, journalists and academics on both sides of the political divide, but a disproportionate number are Thaksin's "red shirt" supporters.

On Wednesday it summoned a further 21 people, including red shirt founding member Jakrapob Penkair, a former minister in a pro-Thaksin government who was forced to resign in 2008 after being accused of violating Thailand's strict lese-majeste laws.

He now lives in neighbouring Cambodia and said this week he would help organise a campaign of civil disobedience to military rule with others allied to the ousted government.

Thaksin himself fled abroad in 2008 to escape a jail sentence for abuse of power and is based in Dubai. He has made little comment since the coup.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission said on Thursday it had launched a probe into the assets of Yingluck and four other ex-ministers related to a rice-buying scheme that helped undermine her government as farmers went unpaid for months.

If found to have profited from the scheme, all five could have their assets seized.

The country has been mostly calm since the coup. A curfew remains in force from midnight to 4am, although the junta lifted it on Tuesday in the beach resorts of Pattaya, Phuket and Samui to help the battered tourist industry.