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'Let us vote': Thai protesters defy junta and labels

From teachers and tour guides to financial consultants, a small band of anti-coup protesters from a spectrum of Thailand's divided society is taking to the streets to defy the kingdom's new junta.

BANGKOK: From teachers and tour guides to financial consultants, a small band of anti-coup protesters from a spectrum of Thailand's divided society is taking to the streets to defy the kingdom's new junta.

Their message to the military rulers -- return power to the people.

Brought together by social media, they appear to be a leaderless motley crew who began massing within 24 hours of the seizure of power by army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha on May 22.

While some are avowed "Red Shirt" supporters of recently ousted premier Yingluck Shinawatra, others reject labels that they are die-hard supporters of the toppled government.

Meem, a 27-year-old financial consultant, said he was unhappy with some elements of Yingluck's administration but stood by his right to vote.

"This is about right and wrong -- not about Thaksin," he said at a tense protest in central Bangkok, referring to Yingluck's elder brother, a tycoon-turned-populist politician whose overthrow as premier by the military in 2006 ignited the kingdom's long-running crisis.

"We sell the country as a democracy but in the end it's run by the army," he added. "It seems like Myanmar 20 years ago."

His views reflect a burgeoning angst among a slice of broadly young, educated middle-class Bangkok residents who want to exercise their right to vote and hope to see an end to the bitter split in Thai society.

That divide broadly pits the Bangkok-based establishment and royalist southerners against the Shinawatra family and its supporters, mostly in the north and northeast of the country.

The numbers of protesters peaked at around 1,000 on Sunday when a Red Shirt leader wanted by the army was due to make an appearance at a fast-food restaurant in central Bangkok.

But in the main they have been a small but vehement collection of around 100-200 people who have gathered at the city's Victory Monument or in the retail district through Facebook or other social networks.

"I am scared of course, but I have to be here," said 59-year-old teacher Yim. "This coup is totally unjust."

At another rally on Saturday, a tour guide giving his name only as Piti said he had to come to witness the army response to the protest as strict media curbs had cut his ability to follow events.

"I'm not 'Red' or 'Yellow'," he said referring to the colours of Thailand's rival political factions. "I just want peace, democracy and freedom."

The daily rallies have become a cat-and-mouse game between protesters and the army, posing a direct challenge to the tough-talking junta, which has warned it will not brook any dissent.

The regime is monitoring social media, has cordoned off roads to stop protesters massing and coralled those brave enough to attend rallies with troops armed with riot shields and weapons.

It has not -- so far -- used force to end the rallies.

Army loudspeakers on Monday warned people they were breaking the law and tried to incite onlookers to take their own action to clear the road of protesters.

Soldiers have also extensively photographed and filmed the crowd.

Nine protesters have been arrested in Bangkok and have been taken into police custody, according to the authorities.

At least 10 others were arrested over the weekend in northern Chiang Mai.

The army chief has threatened a wider crackdown and even warned that the families of protesters were vulnerable.

Despite the risks, one 33-year-old office worker said she felt compelled to join a rally on Monday afternoon.

"The big picture is we're scared of where this country is going... you can't fix a problem with another problem -- a coup is not neutral," she said, asking not to be named.

Her friend said she feared losing her job if her pro-coup boss saw her at the rally.

"More people will come. We are all sick," she said. "Yes, we want a better government than (under Yingluck) but the system has to run -- don't tear it apart with a coup. We want to vote."

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