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Thai Army Blocks Anti-corruption Protest, Detains Activists

FILE - Thai people pay their respect to giant bronze statues of former King Ram Khamhaeng after a religious ceremony at Ratchapakdi Park in Hua Hin, Prachuap Khiri Khan province, Thailand. The park has been at the center of a corruption scandal.

Thailand's military government blocked an anti-corruption protest Monday, detaining about three dozen students and other activists who were headed to a park honoring past kings that was allegedly built with money from shady dealings involving several senior officers.

The military's efforts to quash the protest included detaching the railway car on which the protesters were traveling to Rajabhakti Park, near the seaside town of Hua Hin, before taking them into custody. Officials abruptly announced that the park, on army land, was closed for the day for renovations.

The case has become a major scandal in Thailand, largely because the junta that has run the country since staging a coup last year has vowed to reform the country's political system to stamp out corruption, which it blames on politicians.

The affair has also attracted attention because the leaking of information casting suspicion about an army-led project is rare, leading to speculation that it may be linked to rifts within the junta, or an attempt to discredit it by other influential forces within Thai society.

The military, which seized power in a May 2014 coup, has denied financial wrongdoing related to the park, built under its auspices and featuring giant statues of seven past Thai kings. It announced last month that its own investigation cleared its officers of any wrongdoing, but under public pressure agreed to launch a new probe.

Two senior officers have been accused of wrongdoing, including kickbacks and the diversion of funds contributed to the project, which has been described as costing 1 billion baht ($28 million). Recently retired army commander Gen. Udomdej Sitabutr, who is deputy defense minister and a member of the ruling junta, was head of the foundation overseeing the park's construction. It officially opened in late September.

The New Democracy Movement, comprising mostly students, issued a statement after the detentions describing their planned protest as “a symbolic activity to inspect corruption” at the park.

It said the authorities' action “shows that there is corruption in the construction of Rajabhakti Park. The more they try to block us from the truth, they more likely that there is corruption in the military junta.”

The group said 36 people had been detained, slightly more than initially reported by the authorities.

Government spokesman Maj. Gen. Sansern Keawkamnerd accused the students of being misleading about their intentions, telling an interviewer from TV Channel 9 that, “What this small group of students does is not about what they claim to do, checking government corruption, because that has to be done with documents not at the park, where there is nothing but hard ground and statues of past kings.”

He said it was a political activity and violated a law which bans public meetings of more than five people for political purposes.

Sansern said he hoped the result of the new corruption investigation would be released before the new year, and vowed that anyone found to have committed wrongdoing would be prosecuted.