An anti-coup activist in Thailand called on Friday for a weekend rally to defy the military government's ban on demonstrations, urging those opposed to the takeover to wear masks and be ready for cat-and-mouse chases with soldiers in the capital.
The call to rally on Sunday raised
concerns of a showdown, as the military reiterated its ban on political gatherings and warned it will not tolerate protests against the coup it staged on May 22.
"The authorities will take legal measures against those who come out to oppose" the coup, deputy army spokesman Col. Winthai Suvaree told a news conference. "We cannot tolerate this situation happening."
The warning came as the military sealed off a major Bangkok intersection for a second day on Friday to prevent a possible protest. The massive show of force - involving hundreds of troops during the evening rush hour- came in response to small but near-daily demonstrations that have raised tension and concerns the army will crack down on protesters.
The country's powerful army chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, defended the coup as a means to restore order after seven months of increasingly violent political turbulence.
In the past week, the junta has moved to silence its critics and warned that it will not tolerate dissent.
It has summoned more than 250 people, including members of the government it ousted and other leading political figures, journalists, scholars and activists seen as critical of the regime. Roughly 70 people are still in custody.
Among those summoned was veteran social activist Sombat Boonngam-anong, who is allied with "Red Shirts" who backed the ousted government and has played a role in organizing anti-coup protests.
Sombat has gone into hiding but taunted the military by posting the call to protest on his Facebook page, summoning 10,000 people to come in disguise for a "mask party to celebrate the coup." Protesters have started wearing masks with the faces of political personalities, including the army chief, Prayuth.
"There is no need to be aggressive in opposing the coup. Smile, please, and take it easy," Sombat said. "The masks you wear ... will be enough to make the dictators in the military lose face."
"The goal is to tell the world what we think about the coup," he said, setting the meeting place at a McDonald's restaurant in central Bangkok. Anticipating that soldiers might seal the area, he urged protesters to "go play" elsewhere and listed different neighborhoods in the capital where they could regroup.
One of the McDonald's branches in Bangkok has become a gathering place for protests because of its convenient location. Some protesters have used the McDonald's logo in their anti-coup signs, replacing the "m'' in democracy with the yellow golden arches.
Earlier this week, McDonald's in Thailand stated its political neutrality and warned it will take "appropriate measures" to protect its trademark.
"We wish to clarify that McThai maintains and will continue maintaining a neutral position in the current political situation in Thailand," the company said in a statement.
The army coup overthrew a government that won a landslide election victory three years ago.
At the center of Thailand's deep political divide is Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister supported by many rural Thais for his populist programs but despised by others - particularly Bangkok's elite and middle classes - over allegations of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for the monarchy.
He was ousted in a 2006 coup and lives abroad in self-imposed exile, but held great influence over the overthrown government, which had been led by his sister until a court ousted her earlier this month.
Despite the latest political upheaval, life has continued largely as normal in most of the country, with tourists still relaxing at beach resorts and strolling through Buddhist temples in Bangkok and elsewhere.
A curfew remains in effect from midnight to 4 a.m. but has not affected critical travel, including that of tourists arriving at airports.
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