Thailand planned protest strangled

Last updated 00:08 30/05/2014

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Hundreds of Thai troops and police sealed off one of Bangkok's busiest intersections in an attempt to block a planned protest one week after a military coup.

Truckloads of soldiers blocked all incoming roads to the capital's Victory Monument, prompting shops in the normally congested area to close amid concerns of a crackdown on anti-coup protesters who have come out almost daily to defy a ban on political gatherings.

There was no immediate sign of protesters as police attempted to clear the area. An officer with a megaphone told onlookers, "If you do not have business here, please go home."

The large deployment came a day after hundreds of protesters gathered at the monument and outnumbered soldiers.

Scuffles broke out in which water bottles and other objects were hurled at soldiers, and a green army Humvee was vandalized with large white letters reading, "NO COUP. GET OUT."

The demonstrations have been generally small and mostly leaderless but protesters planned to gather again Thursday and called for a mass rally on Sunday.

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 says it had to act to restore order after seven months of increasingly violent political turbulence.

Earlier Thursday, the army told foreign media that it eventually planned to hold elections, but offered no time frame or roadmap for guiding the country back to democratic rule.

"We neither have any ambition nor desire to cling to power," said Lt. Gen. Chatchalerm Chalermsukh, the army's deputy chief of staff.

"We will definitely have an election," he said. But he added, "this will take some time. If you ask me how long it will take, that's difficult to answer."

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. Roughly 70 people are still in custody.

Several political figures, mostly on the pro-government side, were held incommunicado for a week and freed only after signing waivers agreeing not to say or do anything that could stir conflict.

Foreign news channels such as CNN and BBC have been blocked, and several Thai news outlets have been shut down or are practicing 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.

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The moves have been widely criticized by the international community.

Chatchalerm cited the anti-coup protests as a reason that elections cannot take place immediately.

"Today there are still protests. It shows that some people want to create turmoil. So it's impossible to hold elections at the moment," he said.

The only ousted government official to condemn the coup, Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang, was detained immediately after he did so and military authorities said he will be charged with failing to respond to a summons to report to the army.

His expected trial before a military court has drawn strong criticism from Human Rights Watch, among others, who called it a "travesty of justice." On Thursday, the Human Rights Watch website was blocked in Thailand.

At the center of Thailand's deep political divide is Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister supported by many rural Thais for his populist programs but despised by others - particularly Bangkok's elite and middle classes - over allegations of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for the monarchy.

He was ousted in a 2006 coup and lives abroad in self-imposed exile, but held great influence over the overthrown government, which had been led by his sister until a court ousted her this month.

Despite the latest political upheaval, life has continued largely as normal in most of the country, with tourists still relaxing at beach resorts and strolling through Buddhist temples in Bangkok and elsewhere.

A curfew remains in effect, although it was shortened Wednesday to midnight to 4am, from 10pm to 5am earlier. The curfew has not affected critical travel, including that of tourists arriving at airports.

- AP

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