Young activists take on powerful monarchy and pro-army leaders in what could be a ‘new turning point’ for Thai politics.
Thailand’s government has imposed a state of emergency in a bid to end three months of student-led street protests calling for reforms to the monarchy and the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, arresting at least 20 activists and two of the movement’s leaders early on Thursday.
The ruling bans gatherings of five or more people and the publication of news or online messages that could harm national security.
Despite the restrictions imposed, hundreds defied the new measures.
Protests have escalated over the past three months and on Wednesday tens of thousands of people marched in Bangkok, the capital, setting up camp outside Government House, the prime minister’s office. The government said it also acted after demonstrators obstructed a royal motorcade.
Videos shared widely on social media showed police protecting the royals’ yellow car as it moved through crowds of people holding their arms aloft in the three-finger salute that has become the symbol of the democracy movement 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 measures that took effect from 4am local time (21:00 GMT) banning large gatherings and allowing authorities to ban people from entering any area they designate.
It also prohibits: “publication of news, other media, and electronic information that contains messages that could create fear or intentionally distort information, creating misunderstanding that will affect national security or peace and order.”
Shortly afterwards, police cleared the remaining protesters from outside Government House. Police said they had arrested protest leaders Parit “Penguin” Chirawat and rights lawyer Arnon Nampa. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights said its earlier statement that Panupong Jadnok had also been arrested was incorrect.
A third leader, Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, was picked up later on Thursday with pictures on social media showing her being taken away in a wheelchair as she gave the three-fingered salute. Rung had said a protest would take place at 4pm (09:00 GMT) despite the emergency decree. Police made no immediate comment.
The Asia desk of FIDH, an international human rights group, said at least 20 pro-democracy activists had been arrested. Under the state of emergency, police can detain people without charge for as long as 30 days.
“The scale of today’s arrests seems completely unjustified based in yesterday’s events,” Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Campaigns, Ming Yu Hah said in a statement, urging the authorities to release the detainees. “The assemblies were completely peaceful. These moves are clearly designed to stamp out dissent, and sow fear in anyone who sympathises with the protesters’ views.”
The protest movement aims to remove Prayuth, the former army chief who took power in a 2014 coup that was meant to end a decade of violence between supporters and opponents of the country’s establishment, and who solidified his position in elections that were held last year.
They also want a new constitution and have called for a reduction in the powers of King Maha Vajiralongkorn – breaking a long-standing taboo on criticising the monarchy.
Such overt challenges to the monarchy are unprecedented in Thailand, where the royal family’s influence permeates every aspect of society, and have prompted a backlash from Thailand’s staunchly pro-royalist establishment.
Happened 2b where royal motorcade of Queem &prince passed yesterday. D incident was cited as anong factors necessitate d declaration of the state of emergency before dawn in BKK this morning. Here’s my observations. #WhatHappensinThailand #Thailand #คณะราษฎร2563 #พระราชินีสุทิดา pic.twitter.com/Dy1736iill
— Pravit Rojanaphruk (@PravitR) October 15, 2020
Royal motorcade, appeared carrying Queen Suthida & Prince Dipangkorn, intently shoved through a crowd of protesters who flashed 3-finger salute and shouted slogans in reply.
Hours later, Thai PM ordered authorities to prosecute them.
— โบ๊ทเต้ เบ้ขวา (@iBoate) October 14, 2020
“We have begun to see it talked about more than ever before,” said Al Jazeera’s Scott Heidler, reporting from outside Government House. “But it’s one thing to see people on the streets demanding that reform and quite another to see it actually happen.”
Tensions rose on Wednesday around the royal motorcade as people wearing yellow shirts – symbolising their support for the monarchy – also began to gather. Some 15,000 police were deployed.
“The monarchy has been around more than 700 years,” said Sirilak Kasemsawat, one of thousands of royal supporters waiting “to show we love the king”.
Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri announced late on Wednesday that the prime minister had ordered police to press charges against “the protesters who obstructed the royal motorcade”.
Charges will also be pursued against “those who had acted in a way that defames the monarchy”, he said in a statement.
Several popular anti-government movements have arisen during the turbulent modern history of Thailand, which has endured long bouts of political unrest and more than a dozen successful military coups since 1932.
The army has long positioned itself as the sole defender of the ultra-wealthy king, who spends most of his time in Germany but whose power stretches across every facet of Thai society.
Activists have repeatedly said they wish only for the monarchy to adapt to modern times.
Their demands include the abolition of a strict royal defamation law – which shields the king from criticism – and for the monarch to stay out of politics.
“We’re just asking them to change with us,” protester Dear Thatcha told AFP news agency.
Since the movement started in July, dozens of anti-government activists have been arrested, charged with sedition and released on bail. At least 21 people were arrested earlier this week for attending demonstrations.