A spokesman for Thailand’s coup leaders said on Sunday that democracy had caused “losses” for the country, as the junta sought to combat growing international condemnation and hundreds of protesters angrily confronted soldiers in central Bangkok.
Small protests have persisted since the army seized power on Thursday after months of conflict between the elected government and a fierce opposition protest movement, and the junta has been pleading for patience.
Troops fanned out on Sunday in one of Bangkok’s busiest shopping districts and blocked access to the city’s Skytrain in an attempt to prevent a third day of anti-coup protests.
They were soon met by a crowd that swelled to about 1,000 people shouting, “Get out, get out, get out!”
Tensions ran high, and at one point a group of soldiers was chased away by the crowds at the Ratchaprasong shopping district.
By midafternoon, soldiers were blocking off elevated walkways linking the upscale malls, and Skytrain stops to the area were suspended.
Soldiers also barricaded the road to the US Embassy about 2 kilometers (1 mile) away on reports that a rally was planned there.
The junta’s leader, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, had warned people earlier on Sunday not to join anti-coup street protests, saying normal democratic principles cannot be applied.
At a press briefing, spokesmen for the junta sought to deflect international criticism. The United States has cut off foreign aid and canceled military exercises with Thailand since the coup.
Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said the US also was reconsidering its long military relationship with the Southeast Asian country.
The US State Department on Saturday urged “the immediate restoration of civilian rule and release of detained political leaders, a return to democracy through early elections, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Asked about the US relationship, the junta spokesmen expressed hope that Washington might consider what they termed special circumstances, referring to several years of disruptive demonstrations by two bitterly divided factions that have several times paralyzed the country and led to violent clashes.
“For international issues, another difference is that democracy in Thailand has resulted in losses, which is definitely different from other countries and which is another detail we will clarify,” said army spokesman Col. Winthai Suvaree.
“For Thailand, its circumstances are different from others,” he said. “There is the use of weapons of war. Signs of violence against residents are everywhere. This is out of the ordinary.”
The junta has defended the detentions of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, most of the deposed government’s Cabinet and dozens of politicians and activists.
It also has ordered dozens of outspoken activists, academics and journalists, including a prominent Thai reporter, to surrender themselves to military authorities.
Pravit Rojanaphruk, an outspoken columnist for the English-language daily The Nation, tweeted that he was reporting to the junta after being summoned. “On my way to see the new dictator of Thailand. Hopefully the last,” he wrote.
Gen. Prayuth has justified the coup by saying the army had to act to avert violence and end half a year of political turmoil triggered by anti-government protests that killed 28 people and injured more than 800.
The protests were part of a cycle of dueling demonstrations between supporters of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — Yingluck’s brother, who himself was ousted in a 2006 military coup — and staunch opponents with support of Thailand’s traditional establishment.
The intractable divide plaguing the country today is part of an increasingly precarious power struggle between an elite, conservative minority backed by powerful businessmen and staunch royalists based in Bangkok and the south that can no longer win elections, and the political machine of Thaksin and his supporters in the rural north who backed him because of populist policies such as virtually free health care.
Parties allied with Thaksin have won every election in Thailand since 2001.
The government deposed on Thursday rose to power in a landslide election in 2011 that was deemed fair, and Yingluck served as prime minister until she was forced from office earlier this month by a controversial court verdict for abuse of power, which she denies.
The government had insisted for months that Thailand’s fragile democracy was under attack from protesters, the courts and, finally, the army, which together had rendered it powerless.
The army launched the coup after ordering two days of brief peace talks last week in which the country’s political rivals failed to end their deadlock.
Since November, anti-government protesters had been calling for the army to intervene and support their bid to overthrow the government, which they accused of corruption.
The turbulence has played out against a backdrop of fears about the future of Thailand’s monarchy.
Thaksin’s critics have accused him of disrespecting ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej and trying to gain influence with Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the heir to the throne.
The king, who is 86, has been silent on the crisis.