Thailand’s junta deployed thousands of soldiers in central Bangkok yesterday to counter small protests from groups opposed to the May 22 coup, two days after its leader General Prayuth Chan-Ocha called for unity.
The military blocked roads and suspended train services in Bangkok’s Ratchaprasong shopping district, forcing protesters to move a rally to a nearby retail mall on Sukhumvit Road, one of the capital’s most popular tourist areas.
Hundreds of demonstrators stood on an elevated walkway outside the Terminal 21 mall, shouting ‘Democracy’ in English and Thai and holding signs saying ‘Junta, get out’ and ‘No coup’. Soldiers played patriotic songs from their vehicles, and later closed the mall and a train station linked to the building. Normal rail service was restored at 3:30 p.m. local time, the operator announced on its official Twitter feed.
Coup leader Prayuth said May 30 that martial law gives the military “total control to stop the ongoing violence” and said a nationwide curfew will remain in place until law and order is restored. It may take at least a year to return Thailand to civilian rule because an interim administration will need time to implement electoral reforms and unify the country, he said in a nationally televised address.
“It will not happen if there are still protests without a true understanding of democracy,” Prayuth said. “All we are asking for is give us time to reform in order to mend our democratic system.”
The army has said it had no choice except to seize power in Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy to end more than six months of political turmoil that led to an annulled election in February and the ouster of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra by the courts three months later. Protests have sprung up in Bangkok and the northern city of Chiang-Mai in defiance of martial law that was imposed two days before the coup.
The military and the police tolerated months of street rallies led by opposition politician Suthep Thaugsuban, and allowed the group to blockade parts of Bangkok and occupy government buildings without being arrested. Yesterday, a lone protester in the city’s main shopping district was detained by undercover security officials for defying the junta’s ban on demonstrations, the Bangkok Post reported.
Prayuth’s plan to restore unity broadly reflects the demands of Suthep’s movement, which had called on the army to seize power and replace Yingluck’s government with an unelected council. Supporters of the ousted administration have accused the army, the courts and state agencies of colluding with Suthep’s supporters to provide the army with a justification to seize power.
Suthep had called for laws to be rewritten to erase the influence of the Shinawatra family from politics. Yingluck’s brother Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup and parties linked to him have won the past five elections.
Thaksin’s opponents say his electoral dominance is based on economically damaging populist policies and accuse him of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for the monarchy. Thaksin lives in self-imposed exile abroad to avoid a jail sentence in a corruption case he says was politically motivated.
“We cannot keep fighting each other just because we think differently, or use the law to our own advantage,” Prayuth said in his May 30 speech. “This will only create more conflicts. People will be unhappy and the country will be unstable and lose its credibility among the international community. All sides must cooperate and unite.”
Security forces will negotiate with protesters before taking stronger measures to counter demonstrations, army spokesman Winthai Suvaree said yesterday.
The junta has detained hundreds of people since the coup, including Yingluck, activists from both sides of the political divide, academics and journalists, sparking the condemnation of foreign governments and human rights groups.
“In the past week, many changes have happened in our country,” Yingluck said yesterday in a post on her official Facebook page. “I would like to thank you again for the moral support you’ve given to me all along, and would like to extend my moral support to all Thais.”
The U.S. scrapped joint military programs with Thailand in the days after the coup, and the European Union called on the junta to release detainees.
Australia’s government at the the weekend expressed “grave concerns” about the actions of Thailand’s military, and said it will prevent coup leaders from visiting, in a foreign affairs department statement. It also postponed three joint activities with the Thai military planned in the coming weeks.
Thailand isn’t retreating from democracy, Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs Sihasak Phuangketkeow told reporters yesterday in Singapore, rejecting comments made a day earlier by U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
“We’re committed to democracy, we’re committed to staying the course of democracy and we want to consolidate our democracy,” he told reporters. “The restrictions on freedom of expression were taken, but that was because we didn’t want during the early period any attempts to instigate conflict.”
— With assistance by Tony Jordan