BANGKOK (AP) – The Thai government declared a new state of emergency for the capital on Thursday, a day after a student protest against the country’s traditional establishment saw an extraordinary moment in which protesters threw a royal motorcade.
Following the pre-dawn declaration, riot police moved to clean up protesters who had gathered in front of Prime Minister Prayut Chancho’s office after a day of rallies and confrontation to push through their demands, which include the former general’s resignation, constitutional changes and the reform of the monarchy.
Several senior protesters were detained, and one later said on his Facebook page that he had been denied access to a lawyer and was forced to drop a helicopter and be taken to a town north of the country. Police said they had made 22 arrests.
Despite the new ban on large public gatherings, thousands gathered again in another area of the city later Thursday. The new rally, which appears to have gathered more than 8,000 people, according to which police had attended the rally the night before, lasted about six hours and began to be disbanded shortly after 1
Organizers have announced they will meet again on Friday.
“This shows that no matter how many people are arrested, new people will join the protest,” Pacaravali “Um” Tanakvitvibulpon, an engineering student and protest organizer, told The Standard online.
The text of the declaration of emergency states that this is necessary because “certain groups of perpetrators intended to incite an unpleasant incident and movement in the Bangkok area by various methods and through various channels, including causing obstacles to the royal motorcade.”
Wednesday’s protest in Bangkok’s historic district, not far from gleaming temples and royal palaces, was the third major gathering of student-led activists to expand the boundaries of what is considered acceptable – and legal – language by publicly questioning the role. of the Thai monarchy in the power structure of the nation.
The Thai royal family has long been considered sacred and a pillar of Thai identity. King Maha Vajiralongkorn and other key members of the royal family are protected by the lese majeste law, which is regularly used to silence critics who risk up to 15 years in prison if they are believed to have offended the institution.
The protest, held as part of the anniversary of the student-led uprising against the military dictatorship of 1973, is complicated by the presence of protesters against the royalists, who gathered to show support for the government and congratulate the royal family as they traveled to and from religious ceremony in the area.
This led to a moment captured in photos and videos that spread widely on social media, in which protesters appeared to be gesturing and shouting just meters from the royal motorcade. Such actions are unprecedented in Thailand, where those waiting for a royal procession regularly sit on the ground or stretch.
Some experts say the border may have been crossed.
“What seemed like a stalemate that the Prime Government managed with reasonable success has now, after the incident involving the march of the Queen’s motorcade on a street where there is an active protest and the arrests of protest leaders, become crisis, ”said Michael Montesano, Thai Research Program Coordinator at the ISEAS-Yusof Isak Institute in Singapore. “Unlike even 48 hours ago, the country is now in dangerous territory.”
Government spokesman Anucha Burafachaisri announced on Thursday morning that the prime minister had ordered police to take strict action against those who obstructed the royal procession or otherwise insulted the monarchy.
One change is that police have said they will set up checkpoints around Bangkok for security purposes.
Law enforcement will be facilitated by Bangkok’s new emergency decree, which bans unauthorized gatherings of more than five people and gives authorities other powers they deem necessary to prevent unrest, including the temporary detention of people free of charge. It also outlaws news that distorts information or may cause a “misunderstanding.”
Thailand is already under a national state of emergency as part of its efforts to fight the coronavirus, and it was not immediately clear how different the new decree was.
Protesters gathered again in the shopping district of Bangkok on Thursday afternoon and evening. The crowd grew large enough to block a large crossroads surrounded by elite malls and a famous shrine, where they were approached by a series of speakers who condemned the government.
Police stepped aside as the crowd chanted harsh slogans calling for the prime minister to step down. They also chanted “Release our friends” in connection with the arrested leaders.
“I want to fight for my future. I want to fight for my friends. I want to fight for my democracy. My country must be a democracy, “said Aitarnik Chitwisset, a 24-year-old NGO official.
Police Deputy Spokesman Col. Kisana Fatanacharoen warned earlier that calling for such a protest or his presence was against the law.
The protest movement was launched in March by university students, but was quickly stopped as Thailand was engulfed in a coronavirus pandemic. He returned in July, when the threat of the virus diminished, and has grown since then.
The movement’s initial main demands were new elections, changes to the constitution to make it more democratic, and an end to intimidation of activists.
Protesters accuse Prayut, who as commander of the army led a coup in 2014 that toppled an elected government, of being unjustly returned to power in last year’s general election because laws were changed in favor of a pro-military party. Protesters say a constitution promulgated under military rule and adopted in a referendum in which the campaign against it is illegal is undemocratic.
The movement took another stunning turn in August, when students at a rally issued unprecedented criticism of the monarchy and called for its reform. Using direct language, usually expressed in whispers, if speakers at all criticize the king’s wealth, his influence, and that he spends much of his time in Germany, not Thailand.
Conservative Thai royalists have accused the protest movement of seeking to end the monarchy, a claim its leaders deny.
However, analysts say the incident with the royal motorcade could harden the position.
“It’s not just unprecedented, but it will be shocking to many,” said Kevin Huyson, an honorary professor at the University of North Carolina and a veteran Thai scientist. “Yet this is a reflection of how a new generation of protesters sees the monarchy and the military-backed regime as intertwined, and that political reform requires reform of the monarchy as well.”