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Thai 'Red Shirts' freed as Facebook 'block' sows panic

BANGKOK -- Thailand's junta Wednesday freed leaders of the “Red Shirt” movement allied to the ousted government, as social media users reacted with alarm to rumors of a “block” of Facebook.

Since seizing power last week the military has summoned more than 250 people, curtailed liberties under martial law and imposed a nightly curfew as part of a series of measures that have sparked dismay among rights groups.

Analysts say the move to detain political figures from across the kingdom's bitter divide is aimed at quelling potential opposition to the May 22 coup.

After an outcry on the Internet, the army interrupted national television to deny it had blocked Facebook after the site briefly went down and caused panic online.

“Surely that would be suicide. Whole country would protest,” one user wrote on Twitter of the rumours the site was under siege in the kingdom.

Some users were unconvinced with the junta's denial, speculating that it could have been a trial run for a possible blackout in the future, or a warning shot to social media users not to criticise the coup.

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are hugely popular in the country, and have been used by anti-coup protesters to organise small protests against the military regime.

Despite warnings by the army of a widening crackdown on dissent, protesters have been gathering in Bangkok in small but vehement rallies against the military takeover, while rival pro-coup rallies have also sprung up.

'Treated well'

But in a possible sign that the army is more confident about its grip on power, key members of the Red Shirts protest group were released Wednesday after nearly a week in detention.

The movement's chairman Jatuporn Prompan said they were “treated well”.

“What we have been most concerned about is that the losses (of life) in 2010 should not happen again in 2014 — we should learn the lessons,” he said, referring to a bloody military crackdown on their rallies against a previous government that left dozens dead.

The army has said people who have been detained and released since the coup must sign a document promising to cease political activity.

Senior members of their rival protest movement as well as former premiers Yingluck Shinawatra and Abhisit Vejjajiva have also been held and since released.

Dozens of people are still being detained under broad army powers enabling the new government to hold people without charge for up to seven days.

Those freed “cannot travel overseas and must refrain from expressing political opinions that can cause confusion”, said army spokeswoman Sirichan Ngathong.

In dramatic scenes in Bangkok Tuesday, soldiers took fugitive former cabinet minister Chaturon Chaisang into custody in front of dozens of journalists after he emerged from hiding.

He used a press conference to criticise the coup minutes before being detained.

Escorted by soldiers, Chaturon was brought to a military court in the capital on Wednesday although it was unclear what charges he faced or whether he would stand trial.

Thailand is no stranger to military intervention in politics, with 19 actual or attempted coups in its modern history.

The country has been rocked by increasingly severe political division and street protest for a decade.

The unrest centres on Yingluck's elder brother Thaksin Shinawatra — a telecoms tycoon-turned-politician who was ousted by the military in an earlier coup in 2006.

The path towards the army takeover began late last year when anti-Thaksin forces launched protests in Bangkok calling for Yingluck's government to be thrown out as they sought to rid Thai politics of the influence of the family, which they accuse of corruption.

At least 28 people died and hundreds more were wounded in violence linked to the rallies.

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Thai soldiers scuffle with people after a man was arrested by the Thai army at the end of an anti-coup rally at Victory monument in Bangkok on Wednesday, May 28. (AFP)

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