Thailand’s junta bans all anti-coup protests

AP, Reuters

More than 1,000 Thai troops and police sealed off one of Bangkok’s busiest intersections Thursday to prevent a planned protest, as authorities said they would no longer allow any demonstrations against last week’s military coup.

Truckloads of soldiers blocked all incoming roads to the capital’s Victory Monument in a massive show of force at the height of evening rush hour in an area that serves as one of the city’s commuter bus hubs.

More than a dozen police prisoner trucks were parked along the emptied roundabout, but there was little sign of protesters, who have come out almost daily to defy a ban on political gatherings.

A Belgian man was detained for displaying a T-shirt saying “PEACE PLEASE,” and two Thai women were taken away in a police truck after they showed signs with anti-coup messages.

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

Gen. Somyot Poompanmoung, the deputy national police chief, said the small protests would no longer be allowed. He said nine companies of soldiers and police — about 1,350 — were deployed in Thursday’s operation.

“We know their rally is mainly for symbolic reasons, but it’s against the law,” he said. “We have to keep the law sacred.”

Somyot warned that if protesters change their tactics, “we are ready to tackle that.”

Earlier, in another part of the city, about 100 students held an anti-coup protest on the campus of prestigious Thammasat University that ended peacefully.

The large army deployment came a day after hundreds of protesters gathered at Victory Monument, outnumbering 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 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.

Also on Thursday, a government spokesman said Thailand’s military will send officials to Singapore and Japan in coming days to seek tighter censorship of social media from Facebook, Google and instant messenger service Line, on Thursday.

The military has sought to stifle criticism as it consolidates power after toppling the elected government, detaining politicians and restricting print, radio and broadcast media.

But authorities have struggled to control activity online, where users have used social media to organize protests and express opposition to the coup. The junta has warned about the spread of what it considers provocative material on social media, and asked service providers to help tighten censorship.

“We want to talk to them informally,” Pisit Pao-In, adviser to the permanent secretary of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Ministry, told a news conference on Thursday. “We do not ask them to install any additional software. We just ask them to help (with) filtering content.”

Officials would have to travel as the three companies had no representatives in Thailand with whom to hold talks, he said, speaking after a meeting in Bangkok with Internet gateway and Internet service providers.

The ministry asked ISPs to block websites within an hour of receiving an official request to take them down, said an ISP source who attended the meeting on Thursday, declining to be identified because he was not authorized by his company to speak to media.

After the coup, the ICT established a commission to monitor websites and block content that flouts military guidelines or Thailand’s strict Lese Majeste laws. There are three monitoring centers working 24 hours a day: one each at the army, the ICT and the state telecom regulator, Pisit said.

More than 100 web pages have been blocked since the coup, he added. The ICT, the police, the intelligence agency and regulator work together to monitor websites, he said.

Among the websites blocked is the Thailand page of Human Rights Watch.

Thai users were alarmed on Wednesday when the ministry blocked access to Facebook. It is unclear why the site was blocked. The military denied responsibility for blocking Facebook Pisit said the government had no plans to block access to Thailand’s 24 million Facebook users.

Norwegian telecoms group Telenor, which owns a controlling stake in Thailand’s second-largest mobile operator, Total Access Communications, said the outage had lasted 55 minutes. “Telenor Group believes in open communication and regrets the consequences this might have had for the people of Thailand,” the company said in a statement.

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. Pisit told reporters that the government would ask the popular Japan-based instant messaging service Line to cooperate in blocking users who send material considered undesirable by the military regime.

Earlier Thursday, the army told foreign media that it eventually plans to hold elections, but offered no time frame or road map 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.”

The United States, a longstanding ally of Thailand, said Thursday there isn’t a legitimate reason to delay elections.

“We urge the military council to facilitate an inclusive and transparent electoral process and we encourage them to do that soon,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington.

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.

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.

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 4 a.m., from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. earlier. The curfew has not affected critical travel, including that of tourists arriving at airports.