Exiled Thai opposition activist says 'civilian warriors' training in forest to overthrow junta

BANGKOK (REUTERS) - An exiled Thai opposition activist has issued a defiant call to arms, saying he is training "civilian warriors" to oust the military government in an unusual show of opposition to the junta that took power in a 2014 coup.

Wuthipong Kochathamakun, who the authorities believe is hiding in neighbouring Laos, is a rare voice of dissent following a military crackdown on critics that has largely silenced even the most outspoken opposition supporters.

Wuthipong is a member of the "red shirt" movement that backed populist governments led by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister, former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Both of the Shinawatras saw their governments ousted in military coups. "We are training civilian warriors to chase the bandits out of the country... We are training like soldiers," Wuthipong said in an interview on the US-based Thais Voice programme, aired on YouTube on Thursday (May 25).

Wuthipong, who fled from Thailand in 2014 after being charged with defaming the monarchy, said he was training civilian volunteers.

"We are training to protect our brothers and sisters who are for democracy... I have only just set up the organisation for three, almost four months," he said, adding that the group was based "in the forest", without giving details.

But he acknowledged he had few followers. "Not many people have joined," he said.

Defence Ministry spokesman Kongcheep Tantrawanit dismissed Wuthipong's talk of mobilising resistance.

"I don't believe anyone would think of destroying their own country," Mr Kongcheep said, adding that opinion polls showed that people were happy with military rule.

Wuthipong is already a wanted man. The government has accused him amassing weapons and of plotting to assassinate the prime minister - accusations he has denied.

The army chief suggested Wuthipong could have been behind an explosion at a military hospital in Bangkok on Monday that wounded 24 people. Wuthipong denied involvement in the bombing.

Laos has not made any public comment about him.

For more than a decade, Thailand has been divided between the mostly urban and rural poor supporters of the Shinawatras and the Bangkok-based establishment led by the royalist military.

Former telecommunications tycoon Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup and lives in self-exile to avoid a conviction for corruption that he says was politically motivated.

Yingluck, whose government was ousted in 2014, lives in Thailand and is facing charges linked to a failed rice subsidy scheme. She denies wrongdoing.

The military has promised an election though the date has been pushed back and it is now expected late next year.

It has also highlighted the need for reconciliation, but doubts remain about its efforts given its attitude towards dissent.

Political activity largely stopped upon the death of King Bhuimbol Adulyadej last October and it is not expected to resume until a year-long period of mourning is over.

The military has been a force in politics since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, but it now seems determined to anchor its role for good. The junta has become deeply embedded in society with military men entrenched in senior positions.

The military has overseen the drafting of a Constitution that critics say will enable it to control politics even after civilian government is restored.