Thai anti-coup activists defy junta ban on protests

Bangkok (AFP) - Around 200 pro-democracy protesters rallied peacefully in Bangkok on Saturday in defiance of the ruling junta's ban on political gatherings in one of the biggest public demonstrations since last year's coup.

The rally organised by the student-led New Democracy Movement (NDM) marked the anniversary of the 2006 military putsch that ousted then-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who sits at the heart of Thailand's bitter political divide, as well as protesting against the current regime.

The kingdom's ruling generals have mostly succeeded in curbing public dissent since seizing power from the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's younger sister, in May 2014 by outlawing political gatherings and censoring the media.

But while the "Red Shirt" supporters of the Shinawatras -- who have directly or through their proxies won every election since 2001 -- have not massed on the streets, small yet determined rallies led by student activists have defied the regime.

On Saturday they marched from Thammasat University, a proudly liberal bastion, to Democracy Monument in the capital's historic quarter, entering the site despite the presence of barricades and dozens of police officers.

Activists, including some of the 14 students charged with sedition over a June protest at the same spot, gave passionate speeches about democracy before a banner draped across the monument saying "return power to the people".

"We're here to remind people what happens if we are patient and do nothing... Here we are again under a new coup," said 22-year-old economics student Ratthapol Supasopon, about why they were marking the 2006 anniversary.

- 'No legitimacy' -

The overthrow of Thaksin that year has plunged Thailand into nearly a decade of political upheaval broadly pitting his working class and rural supporters against a Bangkok-based royalist elite propped up by large swathes of the military.

The junta says it was forced to stage a coup this time round to restore order after months of often violent protests against Yingluck's administration paralysed the government and brought parts of Bangkok to a standstill.

But critics say it was the latest move by the elite to grab power and prevent democracy from taking root in the kingdom.

Late Saturday protesters were still singing songs at Democracy Monument, where some lit candles as night fell.

Rangsiman Rome, a leading member of the NDM who has been charged with sedition, said he was "worried" about the consequences of the protest but felt compelled to speak out.

"I must do this, I have no choice," said the democracy campaigner.

Thailand's military court has not yet ruled on whether to try the 14 students, who were detained for nearly two weeks earlier this summer.

Their case has seen both the United Nations and European Union urge the government to drop the sedition charges, which carry up to seven years in jail.

Despite their small numbers compared to the mass street protests that have pockmarked Thailand in recent years, the student activists have been a persistent thorn in the side of the junta which has been internationally condemned for its crackdown on civil liberties.

Siranith Seritiwat, a political sciences student, said the rally was important for people to know they "can fight against military rule which has no legitimacy".

The 24-year-old added that the activists faced no tussles with police on entering the site despite the junta's order against the protest.

On Wednesday Thailand's ruling generals said elections are unlikely to take place before June 2017 after initially promising to return power within 18 months of the coup.