BANGKOK: Thai police arrested seven anti-coup protesters after a flashmob rally held yesterday outside a Bangkok shopping centre in defiance of thousands of security forces deployed city-wide to enforce a ban on political gatherings.
Small and increasingly creative protests have been held since the military seized power from the civilian government on May 22.
The majority have taken place in the Thai capital where demonstrators have adopted a three-finger salute from the “Hunger Games” films as an unofficial symbol of resistance against the military regime.
More than 6,500 police and soldiers were deployed at several sites across the city.
In the biggest action of the day, around 20 protesters briefly gathered outside a downtown shopping centre — in full view of dozens of police.
Some made the three-finger salute while others held their hands over their mouths in an apparent rebuke to the muffling of dissent.
They then walked through the mall before getting on the overground train, followed by several plain-clothed police officers, according to a reporter.
“There was only one protest group at Siam (shopping mall). We photographed five people taking part, we followed them and arrested them later,” said deputy national police chief Somyot Poompanmoung, adding they were handed over to the military.
He said two other people photographed at previous rallies were spotted by police outside the mall and arrested.
There were unconfirmed reports of a numerous other flashmobs across the city.
Political assemblies of more than five people were banned under martial law declared by Army Chief Prayut two days before he seized power in a coup three weeks ago.
His troops have so far taken a relatively light touch to policing the near daily rallies, making more than a two dozen arrests but not using force.
On Friday the junta said it had captured a prominent anti-coup figure Sombat Boonngamanong who had spearheaded an online campaign to stage illegal flashmob rallies against the military takeover.
He had asked followers to flash three-finger salutes during peaceful demonstrations.
In a televised address to the nation on Friday, Prayut warned Thais against using the salute.
“I beg you not to raise the three fingers. Why do you have to imitate them (foreigners)?” he said.
“If you want to show it, you can, but can you show it inside your house? Don’t show it outside,” said the army chief.
A ‘We are all Sombat’ Facebook page established since the detention of the anti-coup figurehead, ran photographs of anonymous people holding small anti-coup actions apparently nationwide.
One photograph showed eight people holding ‘no coup’ placards inside a house, with a caption running “You can ban people people from gathering... but you can’t ban a single person’s thoughts.”
Prayut said he was forced to seize power after nearly seven months of anti-government protests which saw 28 people killed and hundreds of others wounded.
The army chief has said elections are not expected to be held for at least a year to allow vaguely-defined reforms leading to a new constitution to be drawn up in an effort to end a political crisis stretching back almost a decade.
Critics accuse the junta of using the violence as a pretext for a long-planned power grab by the military-backed royalist establishment which loathes Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire former premier who sits at the heart of Thailand’s political schism.
The tycoon-turned-populist politician was ousted as prime minister in a 2006 coup and lives in self-exile to avoid jail for a corruption conviction.
Thaksin or his allies have won every election in more than a decade, including in 2011 under his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra, helped by strong support among voters in the northern half of the country.