Since the 2014 coup more than 90 people have been prosecuted under the lese majeste law and 43 have been sentenced.
Tens of thousands of Thai protesters cheered and chanted into the night in central Bangkok on Thursday in a mass show of defiance after the government imposed a state of emergency and banned demonstrations in a bid to end more than three months of protests.
As they dispersed at 10pm (15:00 GMT), protesters pledged to return to the same place every day with another rally planned on Friday.
The growing demonstrations have targeted King Maha Vajiralongkorn as well as Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 coup, in the biggest challenge for years to an establishment long dominated by the army and palace.
“Like dogs cornered, we are fighting till our deaths,” Panupong ‘Mike Rayong’ Jadnok, one the high-profile protest leaders who remains free, told the crowd. “We won’t fall back. We won’t run away. We won’t go anywhere.”
Protesters ignored police appeals to disperse and spilled from the Ratchaprasong Intersection across streets and walkways, their mobile phones shimmering in the night. The location, with its luxury shopping malls and hotels, was the scene of bloodshed in 2010, during more than a decade of violence between supporters and opponents of the Thai establishment.
Pavida Pananond, an associate professor at Thammasat Business School, says she is not surprised that people returned to the streets despite the new decree.
“There has been boiling sentiment,” she told Al Jazeera. “The protests show the depth of the anger and frustration of the people in Bangkok who do not even fear the elevated state of emergency.”
Protesters chanted for the release of some 40 activists arrested earlier in the week. Some also called out insults against the king – until recently an unprecedented act in a country where the constitution says he must be revered.
The emergency measures imposed on Thursday ban gatherings of five or more people.
“Free our friends!” the crowd chanted as they blocked off the major Bangkok intersection, watched by hundreds of riot police. Many held up the three-finger salute which has become the symbol of the pro-democracy movement.
“The people who came know that there is a ban against public gathering of five or more,” said police spokesman Kissana Phathanacharoen. “We will take things step by step.”
After the emergency measures were announced, police moved to clear protesters who had camped outside Government House, the prime minister’s office, following a huge rally on Wednesday during which police said a royal motorcade was obstructed. At least 20 activists were detained in the aftermath.
Videos shared widely on social media showed police protecting the royals’ yellow car as it inched through crowds of people holding their arms aloft in the three-finger salute, and shouting their demands.
“It is extremely necessary to introduce an urgent measure to end this situation effectively and promptly to maintain peace and order,” state television said.
The announcement was accompanied by a document setting out the emergency measures that took effect from 4am local time (21:00 GMT).
The emergency decree gives authorities powers to arrest protesters without warrants, and also to seize “electronic communications equipment, data and weapons”. Online messages that “threaten national security” are also banned.
Breaking! Thousands of protesters, including middle school and university students, are gathering in #Bangkok’s Ratchaprasong financial district. New round of #democracy protest has begun after being dispersed this morning. #ราชประสงค์ #คณะราษฎร #WhatsHappeningInThailand pic.twitter.com/3FH0OOq3u0
— Sunai (@sunaibkk) October 15, 2020
A group of Southeast Asian lawmakers criticised the decree, and called for it be rescinded.
“What’s happening now in Thailand is an outright blatant abuse of emergency powers to crack down on fundamental freedoms and shield those in power from any form of legitimate criticisms,” said Charles Santiago, Chair of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and a Malaysian member of parliament.
“The thousands that have taken to the streets in Bangkok, and nationwide, have done so peacefully, and are fully entitled to raise concerns about the current state of democracy in Thailand.”
Police said they had arrested protest leaders Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak and rights lawyer Arnon Nampa. Arnon said on Facebook he was being forced to board a helicopter to the northern city of Chiang Mai, where he faces sedition charges over a speech in August.
Pictures on social media later showed student leader Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul being taken away in a wheelchair as she gave the three-finger salute.
“We haven’t been able to restore a true democracy yet,” said 54-year-old Sun Pathong, a veteran of a decade of anti-establishment protests and counter-protests before the 2014 coup.
“I’ll be back. We have to continue the fight even if we risk our lives.”