One of Thailand's military junta's first laws prohibited any political gathering of more than five people. On Friday evening, around 80 academics, students and social activists decided to defy this law — in the middle of an upmarket shopping centre, in the middle of rush hour, in the middle of the city that seemingly welcomed the ouster of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
There was no violence, probably because the authorities decided not to enforce the law. Instead, from a perch in the sky train station overlooking the demonstration, held on the steps of the Siam Paragon mall, a police posse merely videographed the hour-long proceedings.
Deputy commander of the metropolitan police's sixth division, Colonel Manit Wongsomboon, took no action against the defiant demonstrators. He also refused to comment to the thronging international media. That is not to say the authorities were inactive on Friday. Army chief General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, heading what is now officially known as the Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy, was on Thai television receiving an endorsement from King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Shinawatra had "caused severe division within the nation", the royal order said, urging public calm and administrative support to the junta.
But the demonstrators at Siam were not interested. "You cannot build democracy through the military," Chulalongkorn University political scientist Giles Ungphakorn told the crowd, which sat on the steps in groups of 10. They held placards that read "No to Thaksin, No to Coup", "On Vacation Again, 19/09/06 till…", and "Restore Democracy Now". Two protesters wore surgical masks on which "Freedom" was written and managed to distract shoppers.
"This is not to solve just the immediate problem, but to ensure a democratic culture," said academic Sathit Jeewaprasert, who said anti-coup rallies would be held every Friday. The man with the mask, Sombat Boonyamanong, who described himself as a social activist, said the purpose of the rally was to open a channel to the people. "Rights are with the people, not with the gun," he said.
Just then, a middle-aged shopper, wearing a canary-yellow T-shirt symbolising the colour of the king, shouted "Get out" in Thai at Sombat. The interlude reflected the deep feelings Thaksin arouses in urban Thailand, where he is not the messiah that he is for the poorer countryside.
Though the demonstrators, known as the "19 September network against Coup", have had their website and SMSes banned by the junta, they stuck to their stand that the coup was a step backward for Thailand, and urged citizens to wear black armbands to show their opposition to the coup.
It was a minor irritation for the junta, which moved to purge Thaksin's loyalists from the police and set up an anti-graft panel on Friday. The nine-member National Counter Corruption Commission was set up specifically "to investigate wrongdoings by Thaksin's government", said junta spokesman Lt Gen Palanggoon Klaharn.
Four police officials close to Thaksin were removed. They included National Intelligence Agency chief General Jumpol Manmai, permanent secretary to the PMO General Peeraphan Prempooti, deputy national police chief General Priewphan Damapong — who is also the elder brother of Thaksin's wife Khunying Potjaman — and assistant national police chief Lt Gen Chalor Chuwong.
The junta has also begun disarming thousands of forest rangers, who come under the command of Natural Resources and Environment Minister Yongyuth Tiyapairat, a close Thaksin aide who was arrested on Thursday. This is apparently to prevent any violence from Thaksin supporters.