BANGKOK – Soldiers in full combat uniforms, some armed, were deployed by Thailand's military junta to one of the country's most crowded beaches Wednesday to clear away food stalls, massage huts and other illegal vending operations as part of a campaign to clean up the country's image.
More than 100 troops trudged past surprised tourists along the white sands of Patong Beach on the popular southern island of Phuket to evict vendors who for years have cluttered the wide beach, making it nearly impossible to walk in some areas.
"The vendors were blocking the public from using the beach," said Sayan Chanachaiwong, the local district chief. "The beach belongs to the public, not to all the vendors who set up their umbrellas and mats and shops on the beach."
Since staging a coup on May 22, the military has led a crackdown on crime, corruption and lawlessness, which it says have to stop before democracy can be restored in Thailand. It also has been quick to deploy troops wherever there has been a hint of political dissent, mostly to intimidate but occasionally arresting people who show any sign of disagreeing with its takeover.
The junta has said it plans to carry out reforms before holding new elections around October 2015.
The junta also is eager to restore Thailand's overseas image, which was battered by the military intervention that ousted an elected government and a nighttime curfew following the coup that has since been lifted. The country's vital tourism industry accounts for about 7 percent of Thailand's economy.
Sayan said the vendors' presence, which was tolerated for years, violated a variety of laws, including the municipality's cleanliness codes and land encroachment regulations. He said that other beaches on the island have already had similar sweeps.
Patong is the largest and busiest beach on Phuket and the center of the popular island's nightlife. Its image has been marred in recent years by a rise in crime, blatant police corruption and mafia-run tourist scams that operate the island's airport taxis and jet-ski and motorbike rentals.
Soldiers partly cleared away the vendors Wednesday and plan to return to Patong Beach every day until it is completely empty of its open-air stalls, Sayan said, adding that sunbathing tourists were initially stunned to see the troops.
"At first the tourists were surprised to see soldiers on the beach," he said. "But when we explained to them what we were trying to do, they understood and stayed on the beach."