Thousands of anti-government protesters took over key intersections in Bangkok on Sunday, defying a ban on protests for the fourth day with chants of “down with dictatorship” and “reform the monarchy.”
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former junta leader turned prime minister that the protesters want to oust, is concerned about the spreading protests and the government wants to talk, his spokesman said.
Demonstrations have persisted despite the arrest of dozens of protesters and their leaders, the use of water cannon and shutdowns on much of Bangkok’s metro rail system in a bid to bring more than three months of street action to an end.
“Free our friends”, the protesters called out as they stood in the rain, a mass of colourful plastic ponchos and umbrellas around Bangkok’s Victory Monument. Police, who fired water cannon laced with chemicals against protesters who gathered on Friday night, kept a more low-key presence.
“I cannot let the students fight alone,” said 24-year-old Phat, who was attending a rally for the first time.
Some protesters held up pictures of the movement’s detained leaders. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights said at least 80 people had been arrested since October 13 with 27 still being held. Police have not given an overall number.
Prayuth’s spokesman said the prime minister feared the protests could be used by troublemakers seeking to instigate violence. Protesters say Prayuth engineered last year’s election to entrench his power – an accusation he denies.
“The government wants to talk to find a way out together,” spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri told Reuters. He did not specify with whom the government hoped to speak.
In an echo of the mass protests that rocked Hong Kong last year, the protesters have taken to social media and secure messaging apps to communicate potential sites for demonstrations, and move quickly from place to place.
“We will stay until it’s over or move to another location with other activists,” said Dee, 25, who gathered at Asok, one of the busiest interchanges in Bangkok. Protesters there had put up handwritten notices on the closed station that read “Does licking the boots of the dictator taste good?”.
A few police officials gathered on the other side of the interchange but did not immediately intervene.
“We are committed to maintaining peace and order. In order to do so we are bound by laws, international standards and human rights,” police spokesman Kissana Phathanacharoen told a news conference.
Once-taboo in Thailand, the demand for royal reform is one of the biggest challenges facing the kingdom’s conservative military-aligned government.
The protesters have been demanding curbs to the powers of the monarchy despite potential jail terms of up 15 years for anyone insulting the king.
“There are groups of people claiming the monarchy for their own benefit and to get rid of their political opponents,” said a 24-year-old graduate who asked not to be identified.
“We will not get true democracy if there’s no monarchy reform,” he said.
The Royal Palace has made no comment on the protests but King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who spends most of his time in Germany, has said Thailand needs people who love the country and the monarchy.
The establishment elite are “unlikely to budge”, Chulalongkorn University’s Thitinan Pongsudhirak told AFP news agency.
“Meeting any demand can be slippery and lead to other sweeping changes,” he said, adding that “tension and confrontation” will likely build as the daily protests continue.
The government banned gatherings involving five or more people in Bangkok on Thursday, but on Sunday rallies were being organised in at least 19 other provinces across the country of 70 million people. Solidarity protests were also being held or planned in Taiwan, Denmark, Sweden, France, the United States and Canada.
— Joshua Wong 黃之鋒 😷 (@joshuawongcf) October 17, 2020
Links have grown between protesters in Thailand and Hong Kong in the so-called Milk Tea Alliance referring to drinks that are popular in both places. Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong tweeted in support of Thai protesters.
“Their determination for #Thailanddemocracy cannot be deterred,” he said.