Thousands of Thais again took to the streets defying a ban on demonstrations for a fifth day as the embattled prime minister recalled parliament to thrash out how to end weeks of protests.
The protesters rallied in three locations in the capital, Bangkok, on Monday, singing the national anthem and raising a three-finger salute borrowed from the Hunger Games movies that has come to symbolise opposition to the military-backed government.
Earlier Monday, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said parliament – currently in recess – would be recalled to discuss how to reduce tensions, and warned protesters not to break the law. His supporters have a majority in parliament.
“The government has already compromised to some degree,” said Prayuth.
Thai police also said they ordered an investigation of four news outlets and imposed curbs on messaging app Telegram under emergency measures imposed on Thursday to try to stop protests.
Demonstrators have defied the government ban imposed last week prohibiting gatherings of more than four people after some activists gave the democracy salute to a royal motorcade.
Two activists now face charges under a rarely used law banning “violence against the queen”, and face a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted. The protests have since sharply escalated.
The largely leaderless movement is calling for the resignation of Prayuth – a former army chief and the mastermind of a 2014 coup – as well as the rewriting of the military-drafted constitution they say rigged last year’s election in his favour.
They are also calling for the reform of the kingdom’s powerful and ultra-wealthy monarchy – a long-taboo subject.
They want the abolition of a draconian defamation law that shields King Maha Vajiralongkorn from criticism, greater transparency of royal finances, and for the monarch to stay out of politics.
Their demand for checks and balances on the monarchy has deeply angered conservative Thais since the monarchy is considered sacrosanct and tough laws protecting it from insult mean its role is not usually discussed openly.
On Monday protesters used secure messaging platforms such as the Telegram app to organise gatherings across Bangkok, seemingly keeping a step ahead of authorities trying to block access to rally points.
A top official with the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) confirmed reports on Monday that the agency had been ordered to block access to Telegram.
Suthisak Tantayothin said the NBTC was talking with internet service providers about doing so, but so far the encrypted messaging app favoured by many demonstrators around the world was still available in the country.
Thai authorities also attempted to stem the growing tide of protests by threatening to censor news coverage and raiding a publishing house.
Deputy police spokesman Kissana Phataracharoen confirmed an order signed by the chief of police that could allow officials to block access to news sites that give what he called “distorted information”.
Putchapong Nodthaisong, a spokesman for the digital ministry, said it requested court orders to take down content by four media outlets and the Facebook page of the protest group Free Youth.
The Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand said it was “deeply concerned” by the censorship threat, adding it “makes the government appear heavy-handed and unresponsive to criticism, and could stir up even more public anger”.
“Bona fide journalists should be allowed to report important developments without the threat of bans, suspensions, censorship or prosecution hanging over them,” the club said in a statement.
‘Protect the monarchy’
Prayuth warned on Monday that the government needed to protect the monarchy. “This is the duty of all Thais,” he told reporters.
Police said 74 people have been arrested since October 13. Nineteen were granted bail on Monday, the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group said.
Apart from arrests by police, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society said it flagged more than 325,000 messages on social media platforms that violated the Computer Crimes Act, which critics say is used to muzzle dissent.
Police warned local media outlets their coverage of the protests would be scrutinised for possible illegal content.
Still, protesters scoffed at these measures.
“They think they have so much power to shut people down online, but they don’t realise they can’t catch up with us new generation and the technology we grew up with,” said an 18-year-old nicknamed Apple.
Thousands of protesters gathered at an intersection in Bangkok chanting “keep fighting” in the latest demonstration in three months of protests.
“This action takes away people’s rights to information,” said 19-year-old Jin, who like many protesters was only willing to give one name.
#SaveFreePress and #Mob19October trended in Thailand on Twitter – one of several platforms being used by the tech-savvy protesters to coordinate their activity.
Prayuth has said he will not quit.
“We are just asking people not to do wrong and destroy the government and people’s property,” Prayuth said. “What the government needs to do is to protect the monarchy.”