ROYAL TOUCH: Thailand's king has formally appointed General Prayut Chan-O-Cha as head of the nation's new military junta
BANGKOK: Thailand's coup leader received royal endorsement to lead the politically divided kingdom Monday and quickly issued a stark warning that he would brook no further opposition to his takeover following a weekend of angry protests.
In his first press conference as junta head, army chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha said elections would be held as "soon as possible" but that he had no timetable for returning the nation of 67 million people to civilian rule after seizing power last Thursday.
The top general said his military junta would move firmly to prevent any recurrence of the months of protests and political violence that have plagued the kingdom.
He urged protesters "to stop their actions as it will harm them and their families because the law is now strict."
The tough-talking commander-in-chief has curbed civil liberties and restricted the media, imposed a nightly curfew and abrogated most of the constitution. He also has assumed all authority to make laws.
Television footage showed Prayut, standing to attention in the crisp white dress required for royal occasions, as the palace proclamation was read out.
He then knelt down before a full-size portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej during the ceremony at army headquarters in Bangkok.
The 86-year-old monarch, who was not present, lives at his seaside palace in the coastal town of Hua Hin and rarely speaks in public nowadays.
Bhumibol commands great respect among many Thais, and his blessing is traditionally a key step in legitimising the country's recurring military takeovers.
The latest coup has triggered a small but growing backlash with more than 1,000 demonstrators marching through Bangkok on Sunday.
Scuffles broke out and at least two protesters were taken away by troops, one bleeding.
Coup opponents said they planned to demonstrate again Monday afternoon.
Prayut said demonstrators could be tried in tough military courts, and warned against social media postings that "create conflict".
The junta has detained former premier Yingluck Shinawatra along with about 200 ousted government leaders, political figures, critics and academics in a sweeping roundup since the coup, which has drawn sharp international criticism.
An army commander on Monday indicated Yingluck remained under military control, but declined to reveal her whereabouts.
"We are taking care of her. She is fine. She can choose to stay wherever she wants," Lieutenant General Thirachai Nakwanich, central region army commander, told AFP when asked of Yingluck's fate.
"Her living conditions are fine."
Yingluck was ousted by a court ruling earlier this month, but her embattled government had remained in place under a caretaker premier until the coup.
Asked when elections would be held, Prayut said: "I have no fixed timeframe."
"I have not set it yet. It depends on the situation. As soon as possible," he said, before abruptly ending the brief media conference.
The political turmoil centres on the divisive figure of Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's elder brother who was deposed as prime minister by royalist generals in a 2006 coup and now lives in self-exile to avoid prison for a corruption conviction.
Thaksin or his allies have won a string of election victories, with strong support from the working class and rural communities in the north and northeast.
But he is reviled by a military-backed royalist establishment, Bangkok middle class and southerners who see him as corrupt and a threat to the monarchy.
The current tumult began late last year when anti-Thaksin forces launched a protest campaign in Bangkok calling for the ouster of Yingluck's government and eradication of her brother's political dominance.
At least 28 people have died in related violence.
Protest leader released
While most Thaksin supporters detained since the coup were believed still in custody, authorities on Monday released rival protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who faces charges of insurrection for the anti-Thaksin pressure campaign.
Suthep also faces a murder charge for a bloody military crackdown on pro-Thaksin opposition protests in 2010, when he was deputy premier in a previous government.
Political analysts believe a new constitution will be introduced by the junta, featuring measures intended to weaken Thaksin's power base.
Some experts believe a struggle is unfolding to decide who will be in power when the revered king's more than six-decade reign eventually ends.
The succession issue cannot be openly discussed in Thailand because of strict royal defamation laws.