BANGKOK — Thailand’s ruling junta deployed thousands of security forces on the streets of Bangkok on Sunday to thwart another round of small-scale protests denouncing last month’s military coup. Hundreds of demonstrators came out and several were detained, but there was no violence.
Fears over possible unrest, however, prompted a major downtown shopping mall to close and authorities temporarily shut down several subway and elevated train stations near where protests could have materialized.
Thailand has been calm since the army overthrew the nation’s elected government on May 22, saying it had to restore order after seven months of demonstrations that had triggered sporadic violence and left the country’s political rivals in a stalemate.
But the junta that took power has launched a major campaign to suppress dissent, summoning politicians, journalists and academics – the majority of them perceived as being critical of the new regime.
Since the coup, small groups of pro-democracy protesters have come out nearly every day, marching through Bangkok and sometimes scuffling with soldiers. No injuries have been reported so far.
The junta has issued stern warnings calling on the demonstrators to stop because it sees their actions as destabilizing, but it has not employed force to stop them. On Sunday, authorities said about 5,700 soldiers and police were deployed at key intersections in Bangkok to stop demonstrators from massing.
The protesters say they should have the right to express themselves freely.
“I am here because I don’t want a coup. I want elections and democracy,” said a 66-year-old female protester who asked to be identified only as Ratchana because of concerns over being detained.
“This is the 21st century,” she said. “There shouldn’t be any coups, but they still keep happening … because Thais are afraid” to speak out.
Ratchana was one of several hundred protesters who gathered on an elevated walkway beside the Terminal 21 shopping mall, chanting “Freedom!” and “Democracy!”
Scores of police and helmeted soldiers with riot shields came to the scene, and the mall’s owners shut the nine-story complex and asked customers to leave for their safety. Two army trucks, including a Humvee mounted with a machine gun, parked on a street outside, but moved away after crowds booed them.
The protest fizzled after a couple of hours, and about 60 of the demonstrators regrouped down the road near the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. Soldiers showed up there, too, marching in formation toward the protesters until the demonstration broke up.
Sunday’s demonstrations were organized by veteran social activist Sombat Boonngam-anong, who is a member of the grassroots “Red Shirts” movement, which had backed the now-ousted government and warned it would take action if there was a coup.
The army, however, has effectively neutralized the movement’s top leaders, detaining them and forcing them to sign agreements promising they will no longer take part in activities that could destabilize the nation.
Meanwhile, in the Red Shirts’ strongholds in northern Thailand, troops have been conducting raids, taking local leaders away and searching for weapons. Some have fled to neighboring countries.
Sombat, who has refused to reply to a summons ordering him to report to an army base, has taunted the military by posting the call to protest on his Facebook page. He asked people to come in disguise for a “mask party” to protest against the coup, Thailand’s second in the past eight years. Protesters have started wearing masks with the faces of political personalities, including the country’s new ruler, army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha.
Despite the latest political upheaval, life has continued largely as normal in most of Bangkok and the rest of the country, with tourists still relaxing at beach resorts and strolling through Buddhist temples in the capital and elsewhere.
Associated Press writer Todd Pitman contributed to this report.