Police have used water cannon and tear gas to disperse demonstrators who gathered in the Thai capital, Bangkok, to demand reform of the monarchy and the release of pro-democracy activist leaders.
Security forces in riot gear pushed back about 1,500 protesters who had pulled down part of a barricade of shipping containers outside the Grand Palace. In some places, police faced off with protesters who threw firecrackers.
“We’re demanding real democracy and not a government that says it is elected but comes from the army,” a 60-year-old man who gave his name only as Kung, told the Reuters news agency. “The world has changed and we want the same kind of monarchy as in Western countries,” he added.
Police used shields, batons, rubber bullets and tear gas and arrested five protesters, police deputy spokesman Kissana Pattanacharoen told reporters.
“We repeatedly issued warnings before escalating our response,” he said, adding that protesters used metal bars and threw stones and marbles.
A youth-led protest movement sprang up last year calling for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s resignation and a reform of the powerful monarchy.
Posing the biggest challenge so far to the prime minister, protesters broke a traditional taboo by saying the constitution drafted by the military after the 2014 coup gives the king too much power.
Demonstrators also say he engineered a process that would preserve the political status quo and keep him in power after a 2019 election. Prayuth, who previously led the military government, has rejected the claims.
Since the movement erupted, more than 60 people have been charged under Thailand’s draconian royal defamation laws, and a handful of the most prominent leaders have been arrested.
Al Jazeera’s Tony Cheng, reporting from the Thai capital, said that although the number of people taking to the streets on Saturday was smaller than during protests last year, protesters remained dissatisfied.
“The government has made no substantial effort to reforming the constitution and the administration they [the protesters] were so unhappy about is still very much in place,” said Cheng.
Cheng said the security forces have intensified their reaction to the protests in recent weeks.
Security forces “have been much tougher in the past couple of months than we have seen through last year. I think that the authorities have taken the decision that […] they are going to increase the severity with which they punish the protesters”, Cheng said.
Anyone arrested could potentially serve two years in prison and face thousands of dollars in fines, Cheng reported.
Pattanacharoen earlier said protests were illegal and violated laws to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Earlier this week, Parliament failed to pass a bill to rewrite the military-backed constitution, one of the protesters’ main demands, while a mass trial of protest leaders accused of sedition and insulting the monarchy also began.
The Royal Palace has declined to directly comment on the protests, but Prayuth and government officials have said that criticism of the king is unlawful and inappropriate.
‘Read it out loud’
The royal defamation laws shield ultra-powerful King Maha Vajiralongkorn and his family from defamation, but rights groups say their broad use means anything perceived as criticism can land a person in jail for up to 15 years per charge.
Earlier in the day, police raided the publishing house Same Sky Books and confiscated 100 copies of a controversial book by prominent human rights lawyer Anon Numpa, titled The Institution of Monarchy in Thailand’s Society.
“The next step is we will have experts examine the content to see whether if it is illegal,” Police Major Trirong Prasopmongkol told AFP.
“This raid is related to the protest today because protesters said on social media that they will distribute these books.”
After the raid, protest group Redem posted the book’s e-copy, inviting demonstrators to download it and “read it out loud” at the protest.