BANGKOK — Hundreds of demonstrators shouting “Freedom!” and “Democracy!” rallied briefly Sunday near a major shopping mall in the heart of Thailand’s capital to denounce the country’s May 22 coup despite a lockdown by soldiers of some of the city’s major intersections.
Thailand’s new military rulers had deployed thousands of troops and police officers to several key locations across Bangkok to prevent an expected series of rallies from jelling. But only one small group of protesters showed up — at a site that lacked any mass army presence.
They gathered on an elevated walkway beside the Terminal 21 shopping mall, chanting and holding signs saying “No Coup.” 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. There was no violence, however, and the protest fizzled after a couple of hours.
“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.
Earlier, the crowd surrounded two plainclothes police officers who tried to detain one of the protesters. But after several minutes of shouting, the protester was released.
Two army trucks, including a Humvee mounted with a machine gun, parked on a street outside, but moved away after crowds booed them.
The army overthrew the nation’s elected government late last month, claiming it had to restore order after seven months of demonstrations that had triggered sporadic violence and left the civil administration virtually powerless and the country’s political rivals in a stalemate.
Since the coup, small groups of pro-democracy protesters have come out on the streets nearly every day, marching through Bangkok and scuffling with soldiers. No injuries have been reported, but the junta has warned them repeatedly to stop, and there are fears of violence if the military employs force.
On Sunday, authorities closed several subway and elevated train stations near where protests could have materialized, advising commuters that services had been suspended temporarily “for your safety due to a situation outside.”
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 silenced the movement’s top leaders, detaining them and forcing them to sign agreements promising they would 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. 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.