Updated: 06/06/2014 18:58 | By Agence France-Presse

Thailand's junta detains anti-coup leader Sombat Boonngamanong

Thailand's junta said Friday that it had captured a fugitive anti-coup leader facing possible imprisonment, as the ruling generals seek to stamp out any criticism of their seizure of power.


Thailand's junta detains anti-coup leader Sombat Boonngamanong

Sombat Boonngamanong, a leader of a faction of the "Red Shirts" movement, at his office in Bangkok on October 14, 2010 - by Pornchai Kittiwongsakul

The regime has banned public protests, summoned hundreds of critics for questioning and imposed a night-time curfew since its May 22 putsch, which has sent tourist arrivals plunging.

Sombat Boonngamanong, who spearheaded an online campaign to stage illegal flashmob rallies against the military takeover, was arrested late Thursday in Chonburi southeast of Bangkok, army spokeswoman Sirichan Ngathong said.

"We have a team who tracked him through the Internet," she told AFP.

Sombat faces charges of defying an order to report to the junta, which carries a possible punishment of two years in prison.

He is expected to be detained at an army facility for up to one week for questioning and then brought before a military court.

Sombat was one of several hundred politicians, activists, academics and journalists summoned by the junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), following the May 22 coup.

Those who attended were detained in secret locations for up to a week and ordered to cease political activities.

Sombat, a prominent pro-democracy activist, refused to turn himself in, instead posting a message on Facebook saying: "Catch me if you can".

Since then he has urged followers to stage peaceful public demonstrations, flashing the three-finger salute from "The Hunger Games" films that has become a symbol of defiance against the junta.

"The military manhunt and arrest of Sombat shows the NCPO's shameful refusal to recognise basic rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly," said Brad Adams, Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"Next we'll see a travesty of justice as the NCPO drags him in front of a military tribunal that resembles a kangaroo court more than a proper court of law."

Sombat is the leader of a faction of the "Red Shirts" movement, which broadly supports fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, who was deposed as prime minister last month.

His supporters reacted to news of his arrest with dismay.

"What has he done wrong? Did he kill anybody?" one follower wrote on his Facebook page.

- Ministers detained -

A former minister in Yingluck's ousted cabinet who also refused to answer the summons appeared in a military court Friday.

Ex-education minister Chaturon Chaisang was detained by soldiers in a dramatic swoop on a press conference late last month, minutes after criticising the coup.

He was initially ordered Friday to remain in military custody for another 12 days, but later released on bail. If convicted, he could be imprisoned.

"He shouldn't be put in jail just because he has different views to the junta," his sister Titima Chaisang told AFP.

The deposed government had faced nearly seven months of mass opposition protests leading up to the coup. 

Shootings and grenade attacks linked to the rallies left 28 people dead and hundreds wounded, including many opposition demonstrators.

The junta has imposed martial law, media censorship and a night-time curfew as part of what it says is an attempt to end years of political turmoil and "return happiness" to the people.

Critics see the coup as a pretext for a long-planned power grab by the military-backed royalist establishment to purge politics of the influence of Thaksin, who was himself ousted by the army in 2006. 

The billionaire tycoon-turned-populist politician lives in Dubai to avoid jail for a corruption conviction. 

Thaksin or his allies have won every election in more than a decade. The junta has said new polls are not expected for at least a year.

The turmoil has scared off tourists, with foreign visitor numbers slumping 10.6 percent in May compared with a year earlier, to roughly 1.74 million people, official figures showed Friday.

The coup makers said they were planning to scrap the midnight-4 am curfew soon in four more tourist destinations -- Hua Hin, Cha-Am, Hat Yai and Krabi, and lift the measure for the rest of the country as soon as possible.

On Tuesday they lifted it in the beach resorts of Pattaya, Koh Samui and Phuket.

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