Army cordon? No problem for Thai protesters

Army cordon? No problem for Thai protesters
A protester against military rule gestures by holding up his three middle fingers in the air, as soldiers look on from an elevated walkway, during a brief demonstration outside a shopping mall in Bangkok June 1, 2014.

THAILAND - Thailand's army saturated several sites targeted for protests by anti-coup groups in Bangkok yesterday morning, but were caught off guard by flash mob-style protests at places with little or no security.

In a small but significant demonstration of the limits of army control, activists outflanked the junta, prompting it to rush soldiers to the upscale Terminal 21 mall, where about 100 people had gathered to protest against military rule and demand an election.

Indeed, handfuls of Thais opposing army rule have been playing cat and mouse with the junta since last week.

After some days of unruly anti-coup protests at the Victory Monument intersection - a major transport hub - the army late last week threw a cordon of soldiers and police around the area every afternoon, denying it to protesters and commuters alike.

They were enforcing martial law, which bans public gatherings of five or more.

But Thais opposed to army rule are finding creative ways around the ban. Groups of four appear here and there, standing in public in a silent circle and reading from books such as George Orwell's 1984. They appear, read silently for a while and then vanish.

Such groups were supposed to appear at the Chong Nonsi Skytrain station in the business district last Friday. While soldiers and undercover security men were watching the busy concourse, they turned up a couple of kilometres up the road instead, at Siam Square, where there were no soldiers.

The small bands are able to communicate through mobile phones and social media, staying out of reach of the army and police, while tying down security forces. Yesterday, the military reacted with a show of force and sealed off several areas in Bangkok targeted by protesters. Again, they were up against a mobile adversary.

Activist Sombat Boonngamanong's Red Sunday group, for example, had planned to show up at the Rachaprasong intersection. But soldiers occupied the area overnight. In the morning, three Skytrain stations were closed.

To dodge the soldiers, the protesters gathered instead at Terminal 21, three train stops up Sukhumvit Road. Mr Sombat orchestrated the switch via the Internet, without showing up in person.

As word spread, the crowd swelled to over 100. Many flashed a three-fingered salute that they said was taken from the Hollywood film The Hunger Games and apparently signifies "freedom, equality, brotherhood".

After about an hour, troops turned up on Humvees. They were booed, and the protesters spread out in small groups across the mall and the adjacent road and train station. They shouted "Elections! Elections!" and scattered leaflets denouncing the coup. The police later turned up in force and sealed off the mall.

The protest, like other small ones, was largely non-confrontational. But there were edgy moments - when the police tried to arrest one protester, they were mobbed and had to let him go.

The anti-coup protesters in Bangkok are small in number, but they are challenging junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha's martial law.

On the other side of the divide, many Thais aligned with the royalist People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), which campaigned to drive out the previous government, have welcomed the coup for breaking a dangerously tense political deadlock. Much of this support is based in Bangkok.

The PDRC leadership raised eyebrows when pictures emerged of several key members, many in army fatigues, celebrating at an expensive French restaurant last week.

This article was first published on June 2, 2014.
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