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Thais defy military rulers to stage anti-coup protests

Rights groups and foreign leaders condemn junta

Stephen Steele, Bangkok

Stephen Steele, Bangkok

Published: May 26, 2014 06:42 AM GMT

Updated: May 25, 2014 08:30 PM GMT

Thais defy military rulers to stage anti-coup protests

The Thai military detains a protester during an anti-coup demonstration near Victory Monument in downtown Bangkok. (Photo by Will Baxter)

Bangkok survived a tense weekend as protests across the city against the recent coup tested the resolve of a military that seized control of the country last week, while suspending most basic rights.

When the military assumed control of the government, it ordered a nationwide 10pm curfew, broke up protest sites and prohibited gatherings of more than five people. Anti-coup protests erupted throughout Bangkok over the weekend, with some numbering as many as 500 people.

While there were some minor skirmishes between soldiers and protesters at scattered sites on Sunday, by nightfall most Thais were off the streets and the restaurants, bars and nightclubs of Bangkok’s fabled nightlife were shuttered.

Included in the chaos of the coup and declaration of martial law were a systematic detention of journalists, academics and politicians, which drew swift condemnation from human rights groups and foreign governments. 

The US government suspended $3.5 million in military aid – about one-third of its assistance to Thailand – and urged Thai military leaders to return the country to civilian rule.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "seriously concerned" by the coup and urged "a prompt return to constitutional, civilian, democratic rule and an all-inclusive dialogue that will pave the way for long-term peace and prosperity."

The detention of journalists and academics was “quite worrisome” aspect of this coup, said Paul Chambers, director of research for the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, affiliated with Chiang Mai University.

"This aspect seems to be much more symptomatic of this coup than the 2006 coup. It does remind me of the horrific 1976 coup … when there were detentions and arrests of scores of academics. There were [also] threats made against foreign journalists," Chambers told ucanews.com.

Thailand's army chief, Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, has said the coup was necessary in order to restore order to the country and end a political impasse that had lasted more than six months.

Jesuit Father Vichai Phoktavi, former director of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, said he believed the military had "good intentions" in declaring the coup.

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"For almost a year now, we have been under a lot of tensions and troubles," he told ucanews.com.

"I hope this can help our country reform and get to a real democracy and a free and fair election," he said.

Fr Vichai was one of the few Thais who agreed to speak on the record to ucanews.com. Most of those who agreed to be interviewed later backed out, fearing reprisals.

Human rights groups sharply criticized the junta, saying innocent people are being arrested arbitrarily and held without cause.

"Those who have allegedly committed crimes should be properly charged and face fair trials in civilian courts," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

"Military rule has thrown Thailand's rights situation into a free fall. The army is using draconian martial law powers to detain politicians, activists, and journalists, to censor media, and to ban all public gatherings. This rolling crackdown needs to come to an end immediately," Adams said in a statement.

Sam Zarifi, Asia and Oceania regional director for the International Commission of Jurists, in a statement posted to his Twitter feed, called for the release of all those detained.

"Troops arrested few protesters in central Bangkok. No habeas corpus applies, and they don't have to appear before a judge. That's martial law," he said.

Among those detained were former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, members of her cabinet and leaders of the movement that sought the overthrow of her government. The army also seized control of television networks, suspending normal broadcasts.

Some analysts see the coup as a continuing battle in ridding Thailand of the influence of deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's billionaire brother, who was overthrown in a 2006 military coup.

"The military has been tasked by the privy council to once and for all bring anti-Shinawatra order to the kingdom of Thailand," Chambers said.

"All of this comes at a time when the military seems to be more united than all of Thailand's other political players: political parties, social movements, even the traditional institutions, being cracked and fissured," Chambers told ucanews.com.

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