Thai junta bans demonstrations

More than 1,000 Thai troops and police sealed off one of Bangkok’s busiest junctions yesterday to prevent a planned protest, as authorities said they would no longer allow any demonstrations against last week’s military coup.

A group of schoolgirls have a photograph taken with troops stationed to prevent anticoup protests in Bangkok. Picture: AP

Lorryloads of soldiers blocked all incoming roads to the capital’s Victory Monument in a massive show of force at the height of evening rush hour in an area that serves as one of the city’s commuter bus hubs.

More than a dozen police prisoner vans were parked along the emptied roundabout, but there was little sign of protesters.

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A Belgian man was detained for wearing a T-shirt saying “Peace please,” and two Thai women were taken away on a police lorry for possessing signs with anti-coup messages.

The anti-coup demonstrations have been generally small and mostly leaderless but protesters have called for a mass rally on Sunday.

General Somyot Poompanmoung, the deputy national police chief, said the small protests would no longer be allowed. He said nine companies of soldiers and police – about 1,350 men – were deployed in yesterday’s operation.

“We know their rally is mainly for symbolic reasons, but it’s against the law,” he said. “We have to keep the law sacred.”

He warned that if protesters change their tactics “we are ready to tackle that”.

Earlier, in another part of the city, about 100 students held an anti-coup protest on the campus of prestigious Thammasat University which ended peacefully.

The large army deployment came a day after hundreds of protesters gathered at Victory Monument and outnumbered soldiers. Scuffles broke out in which water bottles and other objects were hurled at soldiers, and a green army Humvee was vandalised with large white letters reading: “No coup. Get out”.

The mounting tension comes a week after the army seized power, overthrowing a government that won a landslide election victory three years earlier. The army said it had to act to restore order after seven months of increasingly violent political turbulence.

Earlier yesterday, the army told foreign media that it eventually plans to hold elections, but offered no timeframe.

“We neither have any ambition nor desire to cling to power,” said Lieutenant General Chatchalerm Chalermsukh, the army’s deputy chief of staff. “We will definitely have an election.” In the past week, the junta has acted to silence its critics and has warned that it will not tolerate dissent.

It has summoned more than 250 people, including members of the government it ousted and other leading political figures, journalists, scholars and activists seen as critical of the regime. Around 70 people are still in custody.

Several political figures, mostly on the pro-government side, were held incommunicado for a week.

Foreign news channels have been blocked, and several Thai news outlets have been shut down or are practising self-censorship. The military has said it will crack down on online speech it considers inflammatory. It denied responsibility for a brief and partial shutdown of Facebook in Thailand on Wednesday, but it has begun targeting websites deemed threatening.