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Thai forces fan out to stifle unrest in capital

Reuters

Thai police and soldiers flooded downtown Bangkok on Saturday to pre-empt further protests against a May 22 coup after the army chief said a return to democracy would take more than a year.

In a televised address late on Friday, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha said the military would need time to reconcile Thailand’s antagonistic political forces and to engineer reforms.

Prayuth, who ousted the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra after months of sometimes violent protests, appealed for patience from Thailand’s international allies after outlining his reform plan to the Southeast Asian nation.

But the response from foreign governments was to keep up the pressure on the ruling junta to call elections quickly.

At a conference in Singapore on Saturday, U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel urged the Thai armed forces to release detainees, end censorship and “move immediately to restore power to the people of Thailand, through free and fair elections.”

Security was tight Saturday around a normally traffic- and pedestrian-clogged Victory Monument where protests flared earlier in the week. The closure of the overhead city rail station at the landmark reduced the number of people on streets and walkways.

Security was being enforced predominantly by police, who had at least seven large trucks parked nearby. Police stood taking photos of each other, chatting to a small group of soldiers standing around a Humvee with a loudspeaker strapped to the top. Trucks and police also lined the road near a central shopping mall where demonstrations took place a week earlier, but there was no sign of any rallies.

A man was arrested and another fled when police thwarted their attempt to hold a protest at another downtown shopping center. One of the men held up a sign before a media melee that said “election only” for less than a minute before police pounced and bundled him into a police truck.

Later, three women sat on the steps of a McDonald’s restaurant and sang a song seeking the return to democracy. “There are only three of us, not five,” one of the women shouted at police, referring to a ban on gatherings of five or more people.

Despite martial law and a ban on gatherings, small protests against the military takeover have been held almost daily in Bangkok. There has been no serious violence.

Activists, spreading word through social media, had said they would hold a big show of opposition at the weekend to press for the restoration of democracy.