By Paul Mooney and Simon Webb
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's military government sent thousands of troops and police into central Bangkok on Sunday, stifling any mass dissent against the army's coup on May 22 and limiting protesters to small gatherings held mostly around shopping malls.
The military toppled the remnants of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's administration after months of protests forced ministries to close, hurt business confidence and caused the economy to shrink.
Yingluck herself was ordered to step down two weeks before the coup when a court found her guilty of abuse of power.
A force of 5,700 police and soldiers was deployed in central Bangkok on Sunday, and rapid deployment units were on hand to stop protests against the coup that might spring up elsewhere, deputy police chief Somyot Poompanmoung said on Sunday.
The military has banned political gatherings of five or more people and protests that have taken place in Bangkok have been small and brief.
A group of protesters gathered on Sunday on an elevated walkway leading to the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, scene of small protests in the days after the military declared martial law on May 20 prior to its full takeover of government. Hundreds of troops with riot gear arrived and suddenly stormed the walkway, sending protesters and onlookers fleeing.
Earlier, a group of about 30 people protested inside Terminal 21 mall in the Asoke area and a group of a similar size gathered at Thammasart University near the Royal Palace, one of the sites most visited by tourists in Bangkok.
Many protesters signalled their opposition to the coup by holding three middle fingers of one hand up in the air, which some said stood for freedom, equality and brotherhood. A few displayed signs bearing the words "No Coup". Police detained one of the protesters in Asoke. On Saturday, as on the two previous days, the authorities closed normally busy roads around Victory Monument, which was becoming a focal point for opposition to the coup. The area was flooded with police and troops but no protesters turned up.
Some top-end malls in the Ratchaprasong area chose to close or have reduced opening hours and the operator of the Skytrain overhead rail network shut several stations in the central area.
In the morning, Ratchaprasong swarmed with police and media but there was barely a protester to be seen.
The cavernous Central World mall opened four hours later than normal at 2 p.m. (0700 GMT). By mid-afternoon there were only a handful of shoppers in the mall, parts of which were burnt to the ground in the mayhem after an army crackdown on protesters in 2010.
"I feel safer now so, no, I didn't change my plans to come," said an expatriate American woman who has lived in Thailand for 30 years. "This country has been in turmoil for three years. It couldn't move forward under the previous government. I hope things can be resolved now."
Thailand's deep political divide pits the Bangkok-based royalist establishment dominated by the military, old-money families and the bureaucracy against supporters of former telecommunications mogul Thaksin Shinawatra, who is adored by the poor in the north and northeast.
Thaksin is the brother of Yingluck and was considered the real power behind her government. He was ousted as prime minister in a previous coup in 2006 and lives in self-imposed exile since fleeing a 2008 conviction for abuse of power.
In a televised address late on Friday, army chief and coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha said the military would need time to reconcile Thailand's antagonistic political forces and push through reforms.
He outlined a process beginning with three months of "reconciliation". A temporary constitution would be drawn up and an interim prime minister and cabinet chosen in a second phase, taking about a year, he said. An election would come at an unspecified time after that.
The United States, European Union countries and others have called for Prayuth to restore democracy quickly, release political detainees and end censorship.
Australia scaled back relations with the Thai military on Saturday and banned coup leaders from travelling there.
Sihasak Phuangketkeow, permanent secretary at Thailand's Foreign Ministry, played down foreign concerns and pleaded for understanding from his country's allies.
"Importantly, we have already started a process of heading back on the democratic track," he said. "As things progress, I do hope that our friends and partners will take these developments into consideration."
(Additional reporting by Viparat Jantraprap in Bangkok and Masayuki Kitano in Singapore; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)