Thai students defy protest ban to demand the return of democracy

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The Independent Online

One of Bangkok's busiest shopping areas came to a standstill yesterday as protesters defied the generals now running Thailand. Dressed in black, some wearing symbolic gags over their mouths, students ignored a ban on public meetings to speak out against this week's coup.

One of those behind the protest was a half-British university lecturer, Giles Ji Ungpakorn, who stood alongside the students, shouting pro-democracy slogans as police looked on. When the first protester, a female student, began reading out a statement, armed police forced their way through the crowd and grabbed her. One witness said he saw a police officer jab a gun into her stomach and tell her: "You're coming with us." The protesters tried to hold the woman back, and for a moment she was caught between protesters and police.

People on their way home leaned over to watch from the platforms of the skytrain, Bangkok's elevated metro. Others jammed the windows of the Siam Paragon shopping centre. That was when the rest of the protesters arrived. Public meetings of more than five people are banned, so they mounted separate protests along the street, in groups of two or three.

The majority of the crowd were curious onlookers, but the police were outnumbered. With the junta censoring the media, the students had found their own way to spread the news.

They were not there to support the deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The placards read: "No to Thaksin. No to coup." Calling themselves the 19 September Network, after the coup date, the students were demanding the army restore democracy.

Mr Ungpakorn admitted: "I'm scared. I don't want to be dragged off to prison. I'd rather not be doing this." But he said: "We have something of a family tradition." Mr Ungpakorn's father is famous in Thailand for defying the 1976 coup, when student protests were brutally put down. When the protests failed, he fled to London, where he met Giles's British mother.

"I have never supported the Thaksin government," said Mr Ungpakorn. "We were protesting against Thaksin's human rights abuses long before the anti-corruption protests began."

Mr Ungpakorn said the 19 September protest movement was started by students, but they approached him to speak for them. He says the situation under the coup was worse than it was under Mr Thaksin. "We were allowed to protest under Thaksin," he said. "There was no ban on demonstrations. The media weren't completely clamped down the way they are now." He says the reason there has been so little protest at the coup so far is that Thailand's establishment is secretly delighted.

"It's a tale of two countries," he said. "You have the urban middle classes and the rural poor. Thaksin was the first to really provide political programmes for the poor. There is this argument that he won elections fraudulently, but there's no real evidence for that. I think the rural poor voted for him because he provided policies for them. That's democracy and if you don't like it you have to set up a political party and offer something better. In this country it's the rural poor who respect democracy - and it's the educated elite who don't."