BANGKOK – Police in the Thai capital blocked a march Tuesday by pro-democracy activists protesting four years of military rule and calling for elections this year.
About 3,200 officers were deployed to prevent about 200 protesters from marching from a Bangkok university campus to Government House. Police had declared Government House and surrounding streets a no-go zone for the march.
Faced with barricades, a tropical downpour and lines of police, the protesters dueled with authorities by loudspeaker, trying to outshout police warnings that the demonstration would tarnish Thailand’s image, scare tourists and cause congestion. Activist Seriwith Seritiwat said the protesters would “never back down.”
Tempers briefly flared as protesters and police pushed at each other for a few minutes, but there appeared to be no arrests.
For his part, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha reiterated on Tuesday that a general election will take place in “early 2019 and no sooner” in response to the protesters’ demand that a vote be held in November.
Tuesday is the fourth anniversary of a bloodless coup in 2014 that toppled Thailand’s elected government.
The junta vowed reform and reconciliation for a politically divided Thailand but its rule has been tarnished by corruption scandals and repeated postponement of promised elections.
The protesters, mainly middle-aged and elderly and led by a core of student activists, have been holding regular rallies for the last few months, calling for the junta to stand down and hold elections.
Political gatherings of five or more people are banned by the military government. Its most recent promise of elections is for February next year.
Analysts say junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, who staged the coup and is now prime minister, is maneuvering to keep a tight grip on power even if elections are held.
On Monday, Sunai Phasuk, Thai researcher at the New York-based Human Rights Watch group, said two activists had been held incommunicado at a secret detention center.
“Their alleged ‘crime’ is providing loud speakers for anti-junta rally,” Sunai wrote on Twitter.
They were later released.
The junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order, is facing a public perception crisis, according to international and domestic polls that say corruption is as endemic as ever.
The government has also repeatedly delayed the general election, which was first tentatively set for 2015. Some fear the early 2019 date could be pushed back again.
Protests against military rule have taken place intermittently in Bangkok since the start of the year.
Some of them have been led by young activists. Others have been attended by former “red shirts,” or supporters of ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in 2006 and fled abroad.
His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was ousted in the 2014 coup and also fled abroad before being convicted of corruption in absentia.
Thailand has been rocked by pro- and anti-government street protests for more than a decade, some of them deadly.
The military says it carried out the latest coup in 2014 to end the cycle of violence and street protests.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5