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Thai junta tightens grip amid mounting global alarm

Thailand's new military junta moved on Friday to tighten its grip on the nation, a day after it seized power in a bloodless coup that has provoked an international outcry.

BANGKOK: Thailand's new military junta moved on Friday to tighten its grip on the nation, a day after it seized power in a bloodless coup that has provoked an international outcry.

Coup leader, army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, reportedly declared himself the acting prime minister, summoned the kingdom's ousted government leaders and barred more than 150 prominent figures from leaving the country.

The Bangkok Post reported that Prayuth will be the interim premier for administrative purposes, until the coup regime can find someone to serve the post full time, citing the National Peace and Order Maintaining Council - which was set up by the military coup leaders.

Thailand's allies and key trading partners meanwhile expressed disquiet over the coup, demanding a quick return to civilian rule as some warned against travel to the prime tourist destination.

Vowing to halt months of political bloodshed, coup makers led by the tough-talking army chief declared a nationwide night-time curfew and ordered masses of rival demonstrators off the streets.

Former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was removed from office in a controversial court ruling earlier this month, arrived at an army facility in Bangkok in her private bullet-proof vehicle after a summons from the military regime.

Dozens of prominent figures from both sides of the political divide, including Yingluck's successor Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, were ordered to show up. It was unclear what awaited them.

"If the prime minister and many of these personalities are not apprehended, then there would be the threat that they might set up a government in exile," said Paul Chambers, a Southeast Asia expert at Chiang Mai University innorthern Thailand.

The army said 155 prominent figures, including the ousted government leaders, were banned from leaving the country without permission.

The military regime suspended most of the constitution, drawing rebukes from Washington, Europe and UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who all called for civilian control to be restored.

Secretary of State John Kerry said there was "no justification" for a coup that would have "negative implications" for US relations, and demanded early elections. The Pentagon said it was reviewing military cooperation with America's oldest ally in Asia.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters: "China and Thailand are friendly neighbours. We hope to see normal social order to be restored as soon as possible in Thailand."

Australia meanwhile said it was "gravely concerned" at the army's seizure of power.

"It is a volatile situation. We are monitoring it closely but people need to pay close attention to their personal security and their travel plans," Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told ABC radio.

With Thailand drawing just over 26.7 million visitors last year, according to its tourism authority, foreign governments have largely cautioned nationals to keep their heads down without explicitly advising against travel.

However, key trade partners Malaysia and Hong Kong warned against non-essential trips after months of political turmoil escalated into the military crackdown.

Neighbouring Malaysia -- Thailand's second-highest source of visitors last year with 2.99 million tourists, behind China's 4.7 million -- advised its nationals to postpone any non-essential visits and those there to abide by the curfew.

Hong Kong raised its travel alert for Thailand to its second-highest level. The city's Travel Industry Council said all group tours would be cancelled from May 24 to May 30, affecting 1,300 people.

Singapore also weighed in, warning that the situation was "unpredictable and volatile, and may evolve quite rapidly".

"Singaporeans should seriously reconsider visiting Thailand at the moment," the foreign ministry said.

Medical and travel security risk services provider SOS International also urged business travellers to defer non-essential trips, warning that all gatherings should be avoided due to a "credible risk of violence".

Indonesia, Southeast Asia's largest economy, said it was following developments "with deep and profound concern" and that it would seek the intervention of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Thailand is a leading member.

ASEAN is traditionally loath to get involved in its members' internal affairs. But Indonesia stressed that the bloc's charter "emphasises adherence to democratic principles and constitutional government", and so the coup merited engagement by the region.

Japan, Thailand's biggest foreign investor, stopped short of a travel warning but called for a "prompt restoration of a democratic political system".

Toyota and Honda had curtailed night-time shifts at their Thai plants because of the curfew, but a spokesman for Toyota said it had "received authorisation" to resume operations for the time being.

Thailand has been locked in a political crisis since a 2006 military coup that deposed Yingluck's elder brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire tycoon-turned-populist politician who clashed with the royalist establishment.

The military held on to power for more than a year after the 2006 coup and since then, a power bloc centred on Thaksin's family has battled for primacy with a Bangkok-based royalist camp closely tied to the powerful military.

His supporters, known as the "Red Shirts", had warned that an overthrow of the government could trigger civil war and all eyes are on how the movement will respond.

All television and radio stations including foreign broadcasters were ordered to air only a steady stream of army announcements, and the junta warned it would block social media platforms that carry anti-coup content.

Bangkok was calm on Friday although its usually bustling streets were quieter than usual with schools ordered to temporarily close across the country.

Small anti-coup protests broke out in the city, while some people took to the Internet to vent their anger, posting messages such as "Thailand's democracy was murdered by the coup".

In contrast to the previous coup eight years ago, there was no sign of tanks or significant troop numbers deployed around the capital.

While some people welcomed the coup as a possible way out of the crisis, others voiced unease at the power grab.

"The army can do anything now and the people will not know," said Wanit, a 50-year-old taxi driver who gave only one name.

A day earlier as the coup unfolded, there were dramatic scenes at a military-hosted meeting between the kingdom's political rivals as army trucks blocked exits.

Inside, Prayuth abruptly announced he was taking power after the two sides failed to reach a compromise, according to an official at the talks who did not want to be named.

"Because you cannot agree and the situation is likely to escalate into violence I declare that I seize power, so soldiers detain everyone inside this room," the source quoted Prayuth as saying.

Election officials and senators were later released while others, including the leaders of the two main political parties as well as the rival protest leaders, were taken away to an undisclosed location.

The opposition said some of its politicians were released overnight but the whereabouts of the others remained unknown.

Thailand's democratic development has now been interrupted by 19 actual or attempted coups since 1932, interventions that traditionally require the monarchy's approval.

It was unclear whether the palace had blessed Prayuth's coup.

Some observers see the crisis as a struggle to decide who will run the country when the more than six-decade reign of ailing, 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej eventually ends.

Experts say the junta could run the country for at least one year -- like after the 2006 coup -- during which time a new constitution would be drawn up to curb the political dominance of Thaksin and his allies.

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