Hundreds of Thai protesters rallied Thursday, despite extensive crackdown, after authorities quashed months of democracy demonstrations by imposing emergency powers and pulling together leading activists.
Protesters sang “Prayut out!” and “Free our friends!” when they faced police in Ratchaprasong, a busy intersection in central Bangkok, despite a new decree banning groups of more than four people.
Student leaders had previously hit social media to urge supporters to take to the streets.
“Coming into force – just giving moral support from home is not enough,” said the Free Youth Movement, which had organized massive demonstrations in recent months.
The government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, a former army chief who took power in a 2014 coup d’état, has been the target of mounting student-led protests also targeting Thailand’s unassailable monarchy.
After the emergency measures were announced early Thursday, riot police dispersed hundreds of protesters who camped outside the prime minister’s office overnight.
– “Violation of my rights” –
Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul said three top activists were among the nearly two dozen arrested, including Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak – another celebrity whose own arrest was streamed live on Facebook.
Another leading activist, Anon Numpa, said he was helicoptered to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand “without my lawyer”.
“This is a violation of my rights and extremely dangerous for me,” he wrote on Facebook.
It wasn’t immediately clear how those arrested are accessing their social media accounts.
On Wednesday there were unprecedented scenes in which protesters with Queen Suthida and Prince Dipangkorn huddled around the royal motorcade, making the three-fingered gesture of defiance from the books and films of “The Hunger Games”.
“In the past when the royals drove by, we couldn’t even walk around. We have to stop everything and kneel on the ground,” one protester told AFP.
“I’m so surprised. It is happening now, we are changing a lot and it has evolved. We are breaking taboos.”
The emergency measures also allow for the seizure of “electronic communications equipment, data and weapons suspected of causing the emergency,” a government spokesman said in a statement.
“These are orders to prohibit gatherings of five or more people … and to prohibit the dissemination of messages through electronic media that may harm national security,” the spokesman said.
The order came after thousands of protesters gathered around Bangkok’s Democracy Monument on Wednesday before the royal motorcade passed.
While police cordoned off most of the protesters from the royal route, dozens were still in attendance when the convoy passed.
Queen Suthida, seated next to Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti, stared out of a limousine as protesters flashed the three-fingered greeting.
Such obvious challenges to the monarchy are unknown in Thailand, where the influence of the royal family permeates every aspect of society.
Leading opposition figure Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit condemned the action and called on the government to “free all those arrested”.
“The government must quickly find a way to respond to protesters’ demands or the situation will spread across the country,” he said.
– Turbulent history –
The king spends much of his time in Europe but has been in Thailand for the past few days to celebrate an annual Buddhist ceremony and the anniversary of his father’s death.
He is enormously wealthy and is supported by the powerful military – which has long positioned itself to defend the monarchy – as well as the establishment elite.
There have been several popular uprisings in Thailand’s turbulent modern history that have endured long stretches of political unrest and more than a dozen military coups since 1932.
During the recent protests, leaders have repeatedly stated that they only want the monarchy to adapt to modern times.
Their demands include the abolition of a strict royal defamation law that protects the king from criticism, and the demand for the monarch to stay out of politics.
Since the protests began, dozens of activists have been arrested, charged with sedition and released on bail.
Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said the prime minister had ordered police to bring charges against protesters who obstructed the royal motorcade and “those who acted in ways that defamed the monarchy”.
“You have to face legal proceedings without exception.”
bur / th