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Thai protest leaders surrender as pro-democracy march disperses

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Eight Thai pro-democracy protest leaders surrendered to police on Tuesday after police blocked a march held on the anniversary of a 2014 coup in their demand for early elections.

Anti-government protesters confront riot police officers during a protest to demand that the military government hold a general election by November, in Bangkok, Thailand, May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Around 500 protesters gathered at two locations in Bangkok to mark four years since the coup but were outnumbered by around 3,000 police and had dispersed by late afternoon.

The protest came amid widespread concern over the military’s prolonged rule and what rights groups say its misuse of repressive laws to silence critics.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha reiterated that a general election will he held next year as protesters demanded a November vote.

The demonstrators, some holding Thai flags and cartoons of Prayuth as Pinocchio, set off from Thammasat University but were blocked by rows of police in black uniforms from reaching the prime minister’s offices at Government House.

Protesters intermittently tried to push up against police throughout the day.

Government House and surrounding streets were declared a no-go zone and protesters were warned not to defy a junta ban on public gatherings.

Prayuth, who as army chief led the 2014 coup ending months of street protests and political gridlock, reiterated on Tuesday that there would be no election until 2019.

“I’ve said already that it will be according to my steps and that is early 2019 and no sooner,” Prayuth told reporters.

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“These people have shown their point of view many times and we have taken onboard what they’ve said within our capacity.”

The military has promised a return to democratic rule but repeatedly delayed general elections.

Rangsiman Rome, 26, a protest leader who surrendered to police, called on activists to go home.

“We have been successful,” Rangsiman told reporters. “This should enable others to stand on our shoulders to take things further, to continue the struggle.”

Two protesters were arrested near U.N. headquarters. Police said they had broken the law but declined to give details.

The junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), said it had filed charges against five protest leaders for holding an illegal gathering.

The NCPO is facing a public perception crisis, according to international and domestic polls that say corruption is as endemic as ever.

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan defended the junta’s work.

“The prime minister works hard ... the NCPO these four years has worked every day,” Prawit said.

Suchada Saebae, 55, a market vendor, disagreed.

“I think the NCPO has done a rubbish job these past four years,” Suchada said.

Amnesty International in a statement the NCPO had used repressive laws to target critics.

“Authorities continue to flagrantly use deeply repressive laws and decrees to target human rights defenders, activists and political opponents peacefully exercising their human rights to freedom of expression association and assembly. These laws must be lifted without delay,” the group said.

The junta has banned political campaigning and made political gatherings of more than five people illegal.

Protests against military rule have taken place intermittently in Bangkok since the start of the year.

Some have been led by young activists, others by supporters of ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in 2006 and fled abroad.

His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was ousted in the 2014 coup and also fled abroad before being convicted in absentia of corruption.

Thailand has been rocked by pro- and anti-government street protests for more than a decade, some of them deadly. The military says it carried out the 2014 coup to end the cycle of violence.

Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Panarat Thepgumpanat and Pracha Hariraksapitak; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Nick Macfie