BANGKOK • The leader of Thailand's military government, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, has accused fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and "foreign lobbyists" of being behind a series of small anti-junta protests in the capital this week.
The protesters have defied a ban on demonstrations, gathering during evening rush hour at various places in Bangkok. They said they oppose the military-backed draft Constitution and the detention of a politician from Thaksin's party who spoke out against it.
Several people were detained at the protests but there has been no violence. The protesters were later released.
"Who supports them; who plans for this?" General Prayut said to reporters yesterday in Bangkok. "First it's foreign lobbyists; it's Thaksin."
Gen Prayut provided no evidence for his claims, though he did say officials were tracking the "money trail" behind the protesters.
Demonstrations have been banned since Gen Prayut staged a coup against a Thaksin-allied government in May 2014. Gen Prayut, the army chief at the time, had said he needed to intervene to end duelling street protests that he said could have sparked a civil war.
Thaksin, who was ousted by the army in a 2006 coup, has lived in self-imposed exile since being sentenced to a prison term in 2008 on corruption charges that he said were politically motivated.
He remains hugely popular among his legions of poor, rural supporters and is still highly influential. With his huge wealth, he is seen as capable of supporting more active opposition to the government, if he chose to.
Thaksin was not immediately available for comment but Mr Noppadon Pattama, a former legal adviser to Thaksin, said in a statement that Thaksin was not behind the protests. "Thaksin Shinawatra has not employed any lobbyists overseas," he said. "He is not behind any government in exile."
Gen Prayut warned yesterday that the latest protests could endanger an upcoming constitutional referendum.
"The country will be in chaos. You can do what you want, but you have to accept what may happen to Thailand in the future. If you continue to do this, will it mess up the referendum and election?"
The draft Constitution written by a committee hand-picked by the junta will go to a referendum on Aug 7, though both of Thailand's two major political parties have said it is undemocratic.
The government said this week that campaigns, either for or against it, would not be allowed in the run-up to the referendum.
Mr Watana Muangsook, who was minister of social development in a Thaksin government, was taken into military custody on Monday for criticising the draft Constitution.