BANGKOK — Thailand’s new military government moved against two of its top targets on Thursday, capturing a top organizer of protests against its recent takeover and launching a probe into the finances of the former elected prime minister.
Protest leader Sombat Boonngam-anong himself was the first to announce his own arrest, posting a message Thursday night on his Facebook account saying simply, “I’ve been arrested.”
Thai media later reported that Sombat, also known as Nuling, was captured in a house in Cholburi province, about two hours east of Bangkok.
Sombat had defied an order from the new military government to report to the authorities, and went into hiding, going online to organize anti-coup protests in Bangkok.
The website of the newspaper Khaosod reported that he was arrested by police officers of the Technology Crime Suppression Division working with the army, and that he had been traced on the internet by the National Intelligence Agency.
The new government has warned that it is closely monitoring online activities, and plans to expand its surveillance capabilities.
Several dozen people have defied the order to turn themselves in, and some are known to have fled to neighboring countries. The junta has declared that those who don’t surrender themselves may be subject to a two-year jail term.
Sombat was one of the first people to organize protests against Thailand’s previous coup, in 2006, and became known for imaginative and non-violent tactics.
Earlier Thursday, Thailand’s state anti-corruption agency said it would investigate the assets of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and four members of her Cabinet involved in a controversial rice subsidy program.
The move by the National Anti-Corruption Commission followed the May 22 coup that overthrew the elected government Yingluck had led. She was forced from office herself by a court ruling earlier in May that she had abused her authority in approving the transfer of a high-level civil servant.
Coup leaders in Thailand usually seek to publicize alleged corruption by the governments they overthrew as a way of discrediting them and justifying their own takeovers. Yingluck’s brother Thaksin Shinawatra faced similar treatment after a 2006 coup ousted him from the prime minister’s job. He is in self-imposed exile to escape a jail term for a conflict of interest conviction.
The National Anti-Corruption Commission had already indicted Yingluck over charges of dereliction of duty in overseeing the rice subsidy program, charging that she failed to heed advice that it was potentially wasteful and prone to corruption. The Senate could have held an impeachment trial that might have barred her from politics for five years, but the parliamentary body was dissolved by the army after the coup.
The commission is known for having made several significant rulings against Yingluck and her government, which her supporters suspect was part of a conspiracy to oust her from office.
They believe that independent agencies such as the commission, along with high level courts, are aligned with Thailand’s conservative traditional ruling class — guided by royalists and the military — who were alarmed at the political power of the Shinawatra family and its political machine. Thaksin and his allies have won every general election since 2001.
The independent agencies and courts were seeded with anti-Thaksin personnel after the 2006 coup.
In its earlier ruling, the commission said it was unclear whether Yingluck was involved in corruption or had allowed it to take place. Very few, if any, prosecutions in court have been launched in connection with the rice program.
Yingluck, along with most of her government, was briefly detained by the army after the coup.
The brief announcement said three former commerce ministers and a former deputy commerce ministers would also be investigated, without elaborating why it was forming a new subcommittee to probe them.
The subsidy program bought rice from farmers at above-market prices in an effort to boost rural incomes.
As the world’s top rice exporter, Thailand hoped to control the market and push up prices. But India and Vietnam increased exports, which prompted stockpiling by Thailand as it tried to contain losses from its subsidy policy. The program incurred huge financial losses for the government, though there is no reliable estimate of the total.
The program was denounced by Yingluck’s critics as being designed to win votes. But it became a major political weapon against her when protesters began rallying against Yingluck last November and successfully pressured banks not to lend to the government, delaying the payments to farmers.
Shortly after the coup, the new military government announced that it would make the long-delayed payments.
Associated Press writer Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this report.