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Thai crowds call for freedom before the heavies move in

Military out in force as citizens protest at army coup

HUNDREDS of demonstrators shouting “freedom” and “democracy” rallied briefly near a shopping mall in the heart of Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, yesterday to denounce the country’s May 22 coup.

Thailand’s new military rulers had sent 5,700 troops and police officers to key locations across Bangkok to prevent an expected series of rallies.

The military has banned political gatherings of five people or more.

But only one small group of protesters showed up — at a site that lacked an army presence. They gathered beside the Terminal 21 shopping mall, chanting and holding signs which read “no coup.”

Scores of police and helmeted soldiers with riot shields soon turned up and the mall’s owners shut the nine-storey complex, asking customers to leave for their own safety.

Earlier the crowd surrounded two plain-clothed police officers who tried to detain one of the protesters. After several minutes of shouting, the protester was released. Two army trucks, including a Humvee mounted with a machinegun, parked on a street outside but moved away after crowds booed them.

Since the coup, small groups of pro-democracy protesters have come out on the streets nearly every day, marching through Bangkok and scuffling with soldiers.

No injuries have been reported but the junta has warned them repeatedly to stop and there are fears of violence if the military employs force.

Authorities closed several underground and elevated train stations yesterday near where protests could have materialised, advising commuters that services had been suspended temporarily “for your safety due to a situation outside.”

The demonstrations were organised by veteran activist Sombat Boonngam-anong, a member of the grass-roots red-shirt movement that had backed the now-ousted government and warned it would take action if there was a coup.

The army, however, has effectively silenced the movement’s leaders, detaining them and forcing them to sign agreements promising they would no longer take part in activities that could “destabilise the nation.”

Meanwhile, in red-shirt strongholds in northern Thailand, troops have been conducting raids, taking local leaders away and searching for weapons.

Some red-shirt leaders have fled to neighbouring countries.

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